Last week it was an olive branch. This week it was an apology.
Will either be enough to get the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission its much-desired fishing license fee increase?
And save executive director John Arway’s job at the same time?
Those are the questions.
Arway appeared before the House of Representatives game and fisheries committee this week to deliver his agency’s annual report. He started by talking about some of the work the commission has done on behalf of wild and stocked trout, among other things.
Fishing license fees and trout stockings are proving controversial in Pennsylvania.
Photo: Trib Total Media
Then he went, in his words, “off script.”
That was to talk about Senate Bill 935.
It’s legislation – which passed the Senate and is in the House – that would limit any director of the commission to serving no more than eight years. Arway hit that mark on March 2.
Sen. Joe Scarnati of Cameron County, the ranking Republican in the legislature, introduced the bill to force Arway out.
Politics are the reason.
Back in September, Fish and Boat Commissioners directed Arway to cut $2 million from the agency budget starting July 1. That’s to account for lagging revenues.
Fishing license prices haven’t increased since 2004.
Arway said he’d do it by closing hatcheries and stocking 240,000 fewer adult trout, among other things.
He put out a map showing the streams and lakes that would be removed from the stocking program. All were in the districts of lawmakers opposed to increasing license fees.
Arway said that was to “protect” supporters of the fee hikes. Lawmakers took it as an attack on those who didn’t.
Last week, delivering his annual report to members of the Senate game and fisheries committee, Arway said that map was “off the table.”
This week, before the House, he apologized for putting it out in the first place.
“Conservation and recreation are not supposed to be partisan activities,” Arway said.
The decision to release the map was his alone, he added. He said he was sorry he made it, and apologized to lawmakers, his board of commissioners and sportsmen “since this issue has become divisive, and distracts attention away from solving the problems that will make our commonwealth a better place to fish and boat.”
Then, he asked that everyone move on from it.
“Again, I would like to apologize for the proposed cuts. But I sincerely hope that it has come time to put down the sabers and return to doing the people’s business,” Arway said.
Not all lawmakers are interested.
Rep. Dave Maloney, a Berks County Republican, told Arway he was the one to first unleash any sabers. This situation was a “quagmire” of his own making, he added.
The harshest criticism, though, came from Rep. Bryan Barbin, the Somerset County Democrat who serves as minority chairman of the committee.
Twice, in a prior meeting, he asked Arway who proposed the specific location of potential stocking cuts. Both times, Barbin said, Arway laid that at the feet of his staff.
“Now you say it was you,” Barbin said.
The executive director of the Fish and Boat Commission has an “incredible responsibility” for managing resources that belong to the people, Barbin said.
“And when you tell people that count on you to give us a straight answer as to how things are done, and you don’t, you’re not completely accurate, or you don’t tell the truth, then you put us in the position of having to decide are you the person who should move the Fish and Boat Commission forward when we all know we need a (fee) increase,” Barbin said.
“And unfortunately, you have lost my trust.”
He added that Arway should no longer “be at the helm” of the commission.
Calling it an attack on his integrity, Arway disputed Barbin’s recollection of their previous conversations. He said he’s always owned up to being behind the stocking cuts.
“So I resent someone saying I lied. Because I’ve never lied about this decision. I never will lie about the decision,” Arway said. “Because I’m a bigger man than that.”
One lawmaker did stand up for Arway.
Rep. Dan Moul, an Adams County Republican, said he’s always been a “John Arway fan.”
“The reason being, you’re a fighter. I love your passion for what you do,” Moul said.
He suggested Arway deliver the same apology to state Senators. Then, perhaps everyone could “hit that reset button.”
Even that may not be enough, though.
There’s another issue, aside from Arway, that concerns some lawmakers.
The commission’s annual budget is about $51 million. Until now, it’s been able to take in more revenue that it’s spent.
That’s expected to come to an end this year, Arway said.
But Rep. Joe Emrick, a Northampton County Republican, pointed out that the commission has $61 million in uncommitted reserve funds.
Lawmakers a few years ago passed a bill that says municipal governments – townships and boroughs – can’t raise taxes if they have more than 25 percent of their annual operating expenses in reserve, he noted. That, he added, is to protect taxpayers and force public officials to be good stewards.
The commission needs to operate similarly, he charged. To do otherwise, and ask for a fee increase while sitting on that amount of money, “is inexcusable to me.”
“And I’m not going to go home and justify to my anglers and my outdoorsmen and women that I voted to make you pay more for your license while the commission is sitting on this kind of money,” Emrick said. “It would be completely irresponsible of me to do that.”
Arway justified having those reserves, calling the money “a rainy day fund.” It’s not meant to be spent on operating expenses. Rather, he said, it’s for emergencies, like unexpected hatchery repairs and the like.
If the commission spends it just to stay open, with no new revenue, it will be gone in five years anyway, he said. And half of the agency’s $100 million backlog of infrastructure needs will still remain unaddressed.
So unless lawmakers come through with more money, Arway said the commission is going to cut programs and services starting July 1. More will follow in time until the situation is resolved.
“It’s going to start raining this year,” Arway said.
So what’s next with fishing license fees?
Last spring, before Fish and Boat Commissioners approved a $2 million budget cut and executive director John Arway suggested cutting trout stockings, state Senators approved Senate Bill 30.
Sponsored by Blair County republican Sen. John Eichelberger, it would allow the commission to set its own fees. Right now, only lawmakers can change prices.
The House of Representatives never followed suit. They didn’t address the bill in their meeting this week, not that that was expected. Their next official voting day is not until April 9.
But Rep. Keith Gillespie, the York County Republican who chairs the game and fisheries committee, said it’s unlikely to do so then either.
Recently, he was quoted as saying that “even if the cure for cancer” were in that bill, he couldn’t get it approved, given lawmakers unhappiness with Arway.
Now, there may be another hurdle.
All of the talk of the commission’s reserve fund has some lawmakers calling for the state Auditor General’s office to take an official look at commission finances. Several have said they don’t want to increase license fees before that happens.
The problem, said Rep. Bryan Barbin, is that there are too many unknowns.
“The people of Pennsylvania have a right to know what assets are being overseen by the Fish and Boat Commission and we don’t know,” he said.
Arway disputed that, saying the commission has been transparent with its finances. It explained everything to anglers and boaters it’s situation in recent sportsmen’s forums held around the state.
“We want sportsmen to know how we’re spending their money,” he said.