Legislation that would allow the Fish and Boat Commission to set its own license fees would also give it the authority to spend revenues from the sale of Lake Erie stamps on a wider range of projects benefiting fishing.
Legislation that many viewed as having no chance – really, I mean no chance — when first introduced is close to becoming law.
But time is running out.
Can supporters bring it home?
On Tuesday, the state House of Representatives game and fisheries committee met to consider Senate Bills 1166 and 1168. They would, respectively, allow the Pennsylvania Game and Fish and Boat commissions to set their own license prices.
Right now, only lawmakers themselves have that authority. It’s something in years past they jealously guarded, too.
On Tuesday, though, the committee – in a pair of 17-8 votes — sent both bills to the full House for consideration. They received what’s known as “first consideration” by that group the same day.
If they get approval two more times there – second and third consideration — having already passed the Senate, they’ll go to Gov. Tom Wolf for his signature.
House members don’t have much time to act, however. There are just 14 days left in their voting session. If the bills don’t move before then, they’ll have to be reintroduced next session and start all over.
Keith Gillespie, chairman of the House committee and a Republican from York County, said Tuesday it’s taken 20 months to get the bills to this point, so he urged lawmakers to keep them moving along.
“This has been a long process. There’s been a lot of work done,” Gillespie said. “We’re at the 11th hour, literally.”
A couple of Republican lawmakers, though, made a point of voicing their opposition.
Rep. David Maloney of Berks County and Rep. Joe Emrick of Northampton took exception to the idea of allowing the Game Commission especially to generate any more revenue.
Emrick said 80 percent of the commission’s $100 million annual budget goes to salaries and benefits. The “perception, if not the reality” is that the money should go elsewhere, he said.
Maloney took the commission to task for not being more responsive to sportsmen and for what he termed a lack of transparency in financial matters. In regard to that in particular, he pointed out that the state auditor general’s office is going to do an audit of the commission next year. He suggested tabling Bill 1166 until that was done, even if it meant effectively derailing the legislation this session.
“I think it’s the wrong time. I actually think it’s irresponsible,” Maloney said.
Gillespie, though, said he’s heard from sportsmen “far and wide across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania” who want to see both bills moved.
It’s especially beyond time to provide the Game Commission with additional revenue, he added.
“We can talk about money and statistics and Marcellus shale and everything connected with it, but the fact remains that the agency is in dire straits. There’s not been the political intestinal fortitude to allow these people to have a license increase over the last 17 years because it’s looked on as a tax or a fee and nobody wants to go back and try to defend that,” Gillespie said.
“And yet programs and agencies and divisions within the bureaus are being eviscerated and potentially the sportsmen and wildlife and everything we enjoy associated with that is being put risk. We need to do it now.”
There was far less debate about Senate Bill 1168, but both Maloney and Emrick made a point of saying they oppose it, too.
Emrick admitted to being “more sympathetic” to the Fish and Boat Commission. But he also said it has an amount almost equal to one full year’s budget in its reserve fund. It’s hard to tell sportsmen they need to pay more when that’s the case, he said.
If the bills become law, they don’t allow the commissions to raise fees without any limits.
As was described in Tuesday’s meeting, the commissions must propose their increases, then allow for at least 30 days public comment and schedule at least one public hearing. They’re to take what they hear into consideration before final approval.
Even then, they have to submit their proposal – along with all of the comments received — to the House and Senate game and fisheries committees. Both bodies have 30 calendar or 10 session days, whichever is longer, to review them.
The committees can recommend approval or disapproval. If they opt for the latter, the entire legislature and ultimately Governor’s office have to weigh in on the increases.
Both bills contain a sunset provision, too. The commissions will lose the ability to set their own fees on July 15, 2019, unless lawmakers vote to give them the authority permanently.