Fish and Boat Commission executive director John Arway is under fire.
Photo: Fish and Boat Commission
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is calling for a do-over.
State lawmakers don’t appear interested, at least so long as the agency’s executive director is involved.
That was the starkest thing to come out of a hearing of the state Senate’s game and fisheries committee this week.
Lawmakers met to hear the executive directors of the Game and Fish and Boat Commissions – Bryan Burhans and John Arway, respectively – discuss the state of their agencies.
The hearing itself was a bit unusual.
The two commissions deliver reports to the House of Representatives game and fisheries committee annually. Fish and Boat’s is scheduled for March 27, Game’s March 28.
Presentations before Senators are much rarer.
Lawmakers made an exception this year.
Arway and a budget cutting proposal he suggested and his board approved last fall might be the reason why.
Fishing license fees haven’t increased since 2004. Fish and Boat has dealt with that by trimming expenses – staff is down from 432 to 366, for example – over time.
It’s run out of places to cut, though, Arway said. It will, in the coming fiscal year, spend more than it takes in for the first time, he added.
Last September, the commission – in a 6-4 vote – agreed to deal with that by trimming up to $2 million from the budget starting July 1. The plan that’s been put forward calls for closing the Oswayo trout hatchery – and stocking 220,000 fewer adult trout, a cut of 7.5 percent – among other things.
In announcing that, though, the commission also published a map showing the streams and lakes that would no longer get fish. All were located in the districts of lawmakers opposed to increasing fishing license fees.
That “poisoned” the commission’s relationship with lawmakers, to hear some tell it.
Rep. Keith Gillespie, the York County Republican who chairs the House game and fisheries committee, said previously that “even if the cure for cancer” was included in the bill to raise fishing license fees, he couldn’t get it passed.
So when addressing Senators, Arway backed away from that plan, or at least its map.
The commission will still need to cut $2 million as of July 1 if no new revenue is forthcoming, he said.
Private businesses need to generate revenue and invest it in new initiatives to keep customers and remain profitable, he said. Government businesses like the commission are no different.
The commission hasn’t been able to do that, though, he said, because only lawmakers can increase license fees and they haven’t. That, he said, has consequences.
“I have warned that the fiscal slope would lead to a fiscal cliff. Today we stand at the edge of the cliff,” Arway said.
The options are to “either take action on a revenue increase which will provide security for the future or begin the freefall off the cliff because of spending cuts that we need to make. The choice is ours.”
But, he added, the commission is not married to the map of stocking cuts outlined earlier.
It didn’t target lawmakers opposed to a fee increase so much as it protected those supporting one, he asserted. But no matter how it was perceived, it’s no longer in the plans, he added.
“It’s off the drawing board. It’s history. From my perspective, we’re starting with a clean sheet of paper,” Arway said.
Instead, he said, the commission could spread the cuts across the state evenly. That would mean about 260 fewer trout in each lake and stream section everywhere. It could also base cuts on economic, biological and social considerations, he said.
He even asked lawmakers to offer some input.
It might be too late.
Sen. Patrick Stefano, the Somerset County Republican who chairs the game and fisheries committee, didn’t buy Arway’s argument about the map not targeting lawmakers.
He said lawmakers might want to have state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale do an audit of the Fish and Boat Commission, much as he is doing right now with the Game Commission.
Either way, Arway may have to step aside, voluntarily or otherwise, for the commission to get any assistance from lawmakers.
Pending legislation could force him out. Senate Bill 935, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Scarnati, the ranking Republican in the legislature, would require the commission’s executive director to retire after eight years in office. Arway is at that point now.
Scarnati’s bill was introduced on Oct. 19. It passed the Senate unanimously in an unheard of three days.
It’s gone through first consideration in the House of Representatives already. If it passes second and third consideration, it would go to Gov. Tom Wolf to sign into law.
Representatives don’t return to session until April 9.
Stefano suggested he’ll likely push them to act.
“I don’t deny that you are very dedicated to the commission, and the work that you’ve done. I am concerned about the future of the organization’s relationship with the legislature,” Stefano said.
“So at this point, unless your answers to me change my mind, I will still be advocating for Senate Bill 935, to make some significant changes to begin to repair the relationship between Fish and Boat and the legislature.”
Game Commission report
The Game Commission got a much better reception.
Burhans talked about challenges facing the agency – hunter recruitment and retention chief among them – and its successes.
He said, for example, that the state leads the nation in bear hunters and bear harvests, turkey hunters and turkey harvests, and ranks in the top five in most categories for deer harvest.
Lawmakers asked about what the legislature could do to help battle chronic wasting disease. They asked about Sunday hunting and the possibility of opening the statewide firearms deer season on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. And they asked if the commission might reconsider requiring senior lifetime license holders to buy a permit to hunt pheasants.
Burhans made no promises on that last subject. But he added that the revenue collected from those hunters was about $100,000.
That isn’t so significant that a change might never happen, he said.
“The board continues to look at that,” Burhans said.
Otherwise, seem happy enough with the agency.
The Game Commission may face harsher questions next week, from Representatives. There’s more dissatisfaction with the commission – largely over deer management — in that chamber.
It’s members of the House that pushed for the audit of the agency going on right now by DePasquale’s office, after all.
But Senators were more complimentary.
“You guys are doing a great job. I love what you’re doing,” said Sen. Rich Alloway, an Adams County Republican. “The bears, the turkeys, the deer, everything, it’s been fabulous. Keep up the good work.”