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Fish hatcheries could close if there's no vote on raising revenues

John Hayes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Outdoors

PITTSBURGH -- In the battle for wildlife agency funding, the hip boot may now be on the other foot.

Fish and Boat Commissioners have given executive director John Arway authority to slash $2 million in services if the state legislature does not act on raising license fees.

Arway is telling his "customers" that if their representatives fail to schedule a vote, he'll close two warmwater fish hatcheries and one trout hatchery and make "severe" cuts in Fish and Boat's cooperative nursery program during fiscal year 2018-19. Waterborne first-responder training could also be in jeopardy, said Arway.

On the homepage of the Fish and Boat website, director Arway explains the agency's fiscal dilemma and posts a link connecting voters with their state representatives. In effect, the state Fish and Boat Commission, a non-funded agency loosely linked to the executive branch, is suggesting that citizens withhold votes for targeted members of the legislative branch if they don't hold a vote on increasing funding.

In legislative language those are fighting words -- a threat directed at politicians who bristle at being backed into political corners.

"I think we're the ones boxed into a corner," Arway said. "We haven't had an increase in license fees since 2004. This agency gets no General Fund money from the state. We've cut personnel as far as it can be cut. State senators have twice voted to give us authority to control our own license fees, but the House won't hold a vote on raising license fees and won't hold a vote on allowing us to do it ourselves. We're at the brink of reducing services because of that, and I think their constituents should know it."

Fish and Boat operates on a $60 million budget. The $2 million gambit was raised against a backdrop years in the making. Hunting and fishing license fees are set by the legislature. Lawmakers, particularly in some parts of the state, are traditionally reluctant to face voters after raising license fees. No action is taken for years; agency costs continue to grow. When license fees are finally raised, the jump is so high and abrupt that the agencies independently report losing about 10 percent of license holders.

The last raise in hunting license fees was in 1999. The Game Commission's $120 million budget is also stressed, but the agency has not joined in the Fish and Boat threat to withhold services.

The state Senate approved measures that would authorize both agencies to control their own license fees with legislative oversight, assuming the fees would increase gradually every year or two. In the state House, similar bills are stuck in committee without a vote scheduled for the fall term. Arway's ultimatum has ruffled feathers, but the tactic may have backfired.

"It's resonating with a lot of members. A couple of my colleagues are livid over the matter," said Rep. Keith Gillespie, R-York, majority chairman of the House Game and Fisheries Committee. "The people who are most upset are very much in favor of authorizing (self-regulation of fees), but they take offense at being pushed into a corner. There has been damage done with the threats or release of information. We would have preferred that it would have been done another way."

Gillespie said he strongly supports the self-regulation of fees, but can't generate enough votes to move the bills beyond his committee.

"A bunch of my colleagues are not willing to give up that authority," he said, and some don't want the vote to be held months before an election year. Gillespie said he has heard of no linkage to other issues, such as horse-trading over support for a shale gas severance tax.

Arway said the service-reduction plan was based on recommendations of the Pennsylvania State University Ecosystem Science and Management College of Agricultural Sciences, which this year conducted an 85-page business analysis of the Fish and Boat Commission. If enacted the plan would, among other things, reduce the number of trout stocked by 7.5 percent -- 240,000 adult trout stocked in 61 streams and four lakes -- and affect the production and stocking of walleye, muskellunge, northern pike and channel catfish.

"It's not like John's being capricious," Gillespie said. "He has mentioned the problem on numerous occasions. He's saying Rome is burning and this is necessary."

(c)2017 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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