By Bob Frye Capital Correspondent
Harrisburg — The Pennsyl-vania Game Commission, already in a
financial bind, could be facing a new expense very soon, one
officials there say the agency can’t handle.
Some lawmakers disagree, however.
Right now, the commission pays $1.20 to local school districts,
municipalities and counties for every acre of game lands it owns.
The three entities split the money evenly, each getting 40
The “in-lieu-of-tax” payments, as they are known, are due by
Sept. 1 and are meant to compensate those entities for public
properties on the tax rolls.
Senate Bill 868, sponsored by Potter County Republican Martin
Causer, would raise the amount of money the commission pays to
$3.60 per acre. That would boost the commission’s annual bill from
$1.7 million to $5.1 million.
The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which
manages state parks and forests, would also have to pay the higher
fee. Its in-lieu-of-tax bill would increase by $4.85 million.
It’s only fair that the commission and Department of
Conservation and Natural Resources pay more since they own so much
land in some counties, Causer said. Commonwealth agencies own 61
percent of the land mass in Cameron County, for example, and 49
percent in Potter County.
“That leaves a huge burden on the rest of us who do live there,”
Causer said. “It’s really a tax fairness issue.”
The idea of increasing the in-lieu-of-tax payments is not new.
Causer proposed the same thing three years ago, but the idea didn’t
make it very far.
It’s seeing much better success this time around. SB 868 passed
the Senate last November by a 49-1 vote and moved out of the House
Environmental Resources and Energy Committee in late April by a
That means it could go before the full House for a vote any
time, leaving it just one step away from Gov. Ed Rendell’s
That’s got Game Commission officials very scared. They say the
increase in payments is not something the agency can afford to pay
right now, at a time when it already is seeking a license fee hike
to offset rising costs.
“You can’t squeeze blood out of a rock,” said Game Commission-er
Russ Schleiden, of Centre County.
“So what are your choices? Obviously, cuts. Cuts in services,
cuts in program, maybe even layoffs.”
Indeed, if Senate Bill 868 would pass this year in its current
form, the commission’s game fund reserve would have to be drained
to just $800,000 by September. It hasn’t been that low in decades,
said the agency’s legislative liaison, Joe Neville.
DCNR officials are opposed to Causer’s bill in its current form,
Originally, under Act 71, the idea was to pay the extra $2.40 in
tax payments using money generated by gaming funds.
The state Supreme Court struck down that idea, though, not
necessarily because using gaming money for such a purpose would be
illegal, but because of procedural issues.
Still, that’s left the bill, as written, calling for DCNR to pay
the extra money from the state’s general fund.
Gov. Ed Rendell cannot support the bill so long as that is the
case, said his secretary for legislative affairs, Steve Crawford,
in a letter to William Adolph, the Delaware County Republican who
chairs the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.
”While we supported the increase with funding from the state
gaming fund, we cannot support payment from the general fund
without a corresponding revenue source to pay for the plan,”
Causer has heard those arguments, but says the commission and
DCNR are not as poor as they suggest.
“My argument to both agencies is that they could easily come up
with the extra revenue if they would properly manage the forests.
It is a renewable resource. If they cut a few more trees, they
could more than come up with the extra revenue they need,” he
The look of the bill could yet change, as some lawmakers are
already proposing amendments to it. State Rep. Dave Levdansky, an
Allegheny County Democrat, is calling to pay the Game Commission’s
extra $2.40 per acre of game lands out of the state’s general
Causer would prefer the agency pay its own way, but hopes to see
his bill pass the House and go to Rendell this year one way or
Schleiden doesn’t want to see that happen, though.
“This is dangerous,” he said. “We’ve got to stop it now.
Hopefully sportsmen will talk to their own legislators and make
them see that.”