Pennsylvania lawmakers are still debating whether to give deer hunters any Sundays to hunt this fall.
The battle is not yet over.
Pennsylvania state Senators recently approved an amended Senate Bill 147. Passed by a 36-14 vote, it calls for allowing hunting on three Sundays each year.
Supporters hailed it as a victory, albeit a smaller one than they envisioned.
But it remains far from a done deal. Questions remain, both regarding if the bill will become law and when it might be implemented.
One of the biggest issues centers around access to private property.
Senate Bill 147 initially called for simply eliminating the statutory prohibition on Sunday hunting altogether. That would have allowed the Pennsylvania Game Commission to decide which Sundays, if any, to add to the calendar and when.
Later, Sen. Dan Laughlin, the Erie County Republican who authored the legislation, proposed permitting hunting on 14 Sundays, again to be determined by the commission.
In the end, he said, he negotiated that down to three days to get enough votes to move the bill.
That’s something the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau — the largest, most organized opponent on the bill – wanted.
Laughlin also agreed to add trespassing language to it. The bill makes trespassing a primary offense, something that carries stiffer penalties. Game Commission wardens could now enforce it.
The Farm Bureau wanted that, too.
It hasn’t gotten the one other thing it really, really wants, though. And that may hold things up.
At its annual meeting last November, Farm Bureau leaders said they would drop their opposition to Sunday hunting – and take a neutral stance – if a host of conditions were met.
The one that hasn’t been yet is a provision requiring hunters to “obtain written permission from farmers and other private landowners, before they could hunt on private land on Sundays,” said Farm Bureau spokesman Mark O’Neill.
Without it, the bill doesn’t “go far enough for Farm Bureau to take a neutral position,” he added.
And it will take that message to lawmakers.
“Moving forward, we welcome the opportunity to discuss our position on the legislation with members of the House,” O’Neill added
Laughlin said previously he isn’t willing to go that far. Landowners already have the authority to require written permission. He doesn’t believe it needs specified in law.
This might be a case where the Game Commission and Farm Bureau agree, however.
Jason Raup, legal counsel for the commission, said it generally supports the notion of enhancing trespass enforcement. It’s admittedly one of the least effectively enforced laws statewide, he noted.
But, at Senate Bill 147 is written right now, all trespass violations would be treated equally, as higher level, “defiant trespass” cases, he said. That would mean arrests and handcuffs.
“I don’t know that the agency wants to have to handle all trespass offenses that way,” Raup said.
Better, he said, would be to tweak the language in the bill to create “tiered” violations. They could protect landowners, he said. It would also give courts, prosecutors and investigating officers flexibility in determining penalties.
A written permission requirement might be the best, easiest way to do that, he suggested.
“There are some (trespass cases) that are intentional, so let’s treat those more seriously. And there are some that are inadvertent or low level, and we need a mechanism to treat them with a lesser penalty,” Raup said.
The commission is talking to lawmakers about those possibilities.
In the meantime, Senate Bill 147 is before the House of Representatives game and fisheries committee. Lawmakers will discuss it when they return to session on Sept. 17.
They will be in session 24 days before year’s end. That’s six days each in September, October, November and December.
Laughlin said previously he expected the bill to move quickly. It could even reach Gov. Tom Wolf for his signature early in fall.
If that happens, he said, he wants the Game Commission to cram one Sunday into this fall’s hunting calendar.
It might actually be able to do that, Raup said. Whether it will, or even should, is more debatable.
Game Commissioners adopt seasons and bag limits using a two-meeting process. They preliminarily approve them in January each year, then finalize them in April.
That would seem to rule out Sunday hunting until 2020.
But the commission has talked to the state Attorney General’s office about other options.
With just two meetings left this year, one this month and another on Oct. 1, it can’t pass “anticipatory” regulations, or rules based on something lawmakers might do, Raup said. The Attorney General’s office confirmed that.
But, he pointed out, the amended bill as written specifies which Sundays would be open to hunting.
Under that scenario, it seems as if the agency’s executive director could add those dates to the calendar on his own.
“But the real issue comes down to, do we just not have enough time,” Raup said.
If Senate Bill 147 isn’t yet law until late October or even early November, it’s questionable whether the commission can both add a Sunday to seasons and get word out to the public.
“I think the later into the fall that we go, the less wise it becomes, even if we have the authority to do it,” Raup said. “It’s just not clear right now that that’s going to be feasible.”
The commission doesn’t want to rush things, he said. So it may wait to act on the bill until January, no matter when it passes this fall. Then, commissioners can add Sundays to the 2020-21 seasons through their normal process.
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