The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is inching toward stocking 7.5 percent fewer trout next year than this one.
But the idea remains contentious.
That’s as true inside the agency – or inside its board of directors, at least — as out.
A discussion this week revealed that.
Last September commissioners voted – albeit only by a 6-4 majority — to cut $2 million from the 2018-19 budget. That’s to offset an expected operating deficit of between $2 million and $3 million, said commission deputy executive director Brian Barner.
Declining fishing license sales and the fact lawmakers haven’t increased license fees since 2005 are behind that.
How to account for it is the question.
The commission has $49.5 million in uncommitted reserves. But commission executive director John Arway doesn’t want to touch it. He said it represents a “rainy day” fund meant for things like emergencies rather than normal operating expenses.
As an alternative, he proposed closing the agency’s Oswayo trout hatchery – reducing trout stocking by 240,000 adult fish annually – along with two warmwater hatcheries. He also suggested virtually eliminating support for the agency’s cooperative nursery program.
If all that’s to happen, though, it needs to begin on July 1.
So at the commission’s quarterly meeting this week, Arway asked commissioners to re-affirm their decision to cut spending unless lawmakers increase fees.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re all on the same page relative to what the future looks like without any legislation being passed,” Arway said.
That’s where things got sticky.
By meeting’s end, the board – or the majority anyway – gave Arway the green light to make the cuts. A press release pointed that out.
But there remains disagreement.
Some commissioners see the cuts as needed if unpleasant.
Commissioner Richard Lewis of Adams County said no one wants to close hatcheries. But the board needs to be “fiscally responsible.”
“Personally, it’s extremely painful for me to have to endorse a proposal like this. But I think it’s necessary,” he said.
Commissioner Eric Hussar of Union County agreed.
“As leaders, you’ve got to make tough decisions,” Hussar said.
But others remain unconvinced.
Commissioner Ed Mascharka of Erie County made a point to distance himself from the cuts. He voted against them in September, he said.
He still objects to how the savings will be achieved.
“We voted for a $2 million reduction. We did not bring this plan to the table. This is staff and (Arway’s) plan. I want to reiterate that,” Mascharka said.
“It’s not our plan. It’s your plan.”
Board members knew what they were voting on, though, said commissioner Norm Gavlick of Luzerne County.
“This is the only place to get this kind of savings. This is the only place left,” he said.
Commissioner Bill Brock of Elk County, who voted against the cuts in September, said timing and process are the issues.
He’s not unaware of the tough situation the commission is in. But the cuts, and the way they were initially presented, got the commission “jammed up,” he said.
Some lawmakers – who claimed they were close last fall to increasing fishing license fees for the first time since 2005 – have since said there’s no chance of that happening now. They’ve even advanced legislation that would end Arway’s career.
The result is the commission is “in a worse spot now than we were prior,” Brock said.
“At some point, we have to cut costs. And it’s going to be painful when it comes,” he said.
“But I would suggest again, and I don’t expect anyone to believe me or agree with me who hasn’t in the past, that the road we went down was the wrong road to go down.”
Gavlick disagreed. Commissioners voted four years ago to close hatcheries, he said. They rescinded that decision, however, when lawmakers said they would work to provide the agency with more revenue within two years.
Senate bill 30, which would allow the commission to set its own license fees, was one supposed answer.
But a full four years later, neither that bill nor any other increasing revenues has passed. Gavlick said lawmakers have delivered nothing but “empty promises.”
“If they were going to do the right thing, for the right reasons, they would have passed that bill months ago. But they’re not doing it for the wrong reasons. It’s that simple,” Gavlick said. “Everybody knows that.”
Brock, who’s been on the board less than a year, said he couldn’t speak to that. But he’s sure that just cutting costs, with no plan for securing a license fee increase, won’t save the agency either.
“We’re not going to cut ourselves to prosperity. That I am sure of,” Brock said.
Commission president Rocco Ali of Armstrong County – quoted in the commission’s press release as saying the agency has no choice but to trim expenses – nonetheless worries what that will mean.
“If we go through with these cuts, are we looking at a further decline in license sales?” he asked.
Arway said studies – done in Pennsylvania and around the country – suggest that’s unlikely. People don’t quit fishing because of fewer fish stocked, he said.
And, based on the feedback from a series of six sportsmen’s forums held around the state this winter, he believes anglers understand the commission’s dilemma. Five newspaper editorial boards have advocated for increased license fees, as well.
The Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs is in the commission’s corner, said spokesman John Kline. He told commissioners the Federation – the largest sportsmen’s group in the state – supports legislation increasing license fees.
And, “sadly,” Kline said, it supports the proposed $2 million cuts, too.
“You’re sitting in a tough spot and we recognize that,” Kline said.
Many lawmakers do, too, Arway said. He remains hopeful they will find a way to help the agency.
Mascharka does not. He sees “no clear path” to a license fee hike anytime soon.
Politics – not the fate of natural resources or the people who use them — are the holdup, said commissioner Len Lichvar of Somerset County. And a settling of issues there is the only answer.
“It has nothing to do with the angling and boating public,” Lichvar said.