Democrats mum on license fee hikes

By Bob Frye Capital Correspondent

Harrisburg — House Demo-crats have really taken the phrase “if
you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” to
heart, at least when it comes to hunting license fees.

The House Game and Fisheries Committee held a public hearing
June 8 to hear from sportsmen about the idea of raising license
fees.

Six groups testified. All said they want to see fees hiked. In
fact, given the choice between boosting the cost of an adult
resident license from the current $19 to either $29 or $34 by the
2007-08 license year, they all chose the higher price.

After each presenter, Bruce Smith, the York County Republican
who chairs the committee, asked a few questions. He then gave each
member of the committee an opportunity to ask questions of their
own.

Not a single one of the Democrats would bite.

Despite the fact that Democratic minority chairman Ed Staback,
of Lackawanna County, and Clinton County Democrat Mike Hanna were
in attendance, none of the Democrats spoke at the meeting.

Insiders say that was by design. According to a source, House
Democrats – who have said repeatedly that they will not support a
hunting license fee so long as the Game Commission continues on its
present deer-management course – agreed before the meeting not to
even give the issue any debate.

No one would confirm that for the record, however. State Rep.
Dan Surra, an Elk County Democrat, said he did not ask questions
because he had to leave immediately after the meeting for his home
district. He would not speculate on why no one else asked
questions.

Smith, too, declined to explain why his Democratic colleagues
were so quiet, saying only that “that’s their individual decision,
or their collective decision.”

Several of the sportsmen who testified made it clear that
they’re tired of politics mingling with game management,
however.

Ted Onufrak, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of
Sportsmen’s Clubs, noted that he’s paying about $500 more in state
income tax now than he was in 1999, the last time hunting license
fees were increased. Lawmakers didn’t ask him whether he wanted to
pay more before raising his taxes, he said, or invite him to
hearings to offer his opinion.

The fact that they have yet to increase hunting license fees –
purportedly for fear that they’ll upset some of their
license-buying constituents and thus risk their own chances of
getting re-elected — is fair neither to sportsmen nor to the
wildlife resources of the commonwealth, he said.

“For you to deny a modest increase for the Pennsylvania Game
Commission, which I voluntarily can choose to pay or not to pay, is
unacceptable,” Onufrak said.

Wes Waldron, president of the United Bowhunters of Pennsylvania,
was equally blunt in telling lawmakers that the “hostage tactics”
they’re employing to force the Game Commission to change its deer
strategy in exchange for a license fee increase need to be put
aside.

“We do not have a Pennsylvania Deer Commis-sion. What we do have
is a Pennsylvania Game Commis-sion that manages game and non-game
wildlife for sportsmen and non-sportsmen alike,” Waldron said.

The commission definitely needs a license fee increase, said its
executive director, Carl Roe. It has already been forced to cut
programs and services over the course of the last year and a half.
By this time next year, as many as one third of all the wildlife
conservation officer districts in the state could be vacant. That’s
because veteran officers are retiring and the commission can’t
afford to train a new class of officers without new revenue.

Rep. Gordon Denlinger, a Lancaster County Republican, has never
voted for a tax increase in his three years as a lawmaker, but said
that unless hunting license fees are increased soon, the end result
may be a bankrupt Game Commission that has to be merged with
another agency. Already some of his constituents fear that’s what
the Legislature really wants, he said.

To ease those fears and make the commission fiscally sound,
Denlinger said he will support a license fee hike.

“I think if we do not carefully consider the increase proposals
before us and look at the longer-term funding of the agency, this
agency stands on the brink,” he said.

Some of the sportsmen who testified want lawmakers to take
things a step further, though. Several asked that legislators add a
cost of living allowance (COLA) feature to any legislation
increasing license fees. That COLA would increase license fees by
small amounts every year, rather than in relatively big chunks
every six to nine years, and only then when the Game Commission is
all but broke, said Bob Eriksen of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the
National Wild Turkey Federation.

“It would help to limit the probability of large increases in
license costs in future years,” Eriksen said.

Smith was not optimistic his fellow legislators would approve a
COLA provision. He did ask if sportsmen might accept a $1 or $2
jump in license fees every year or two, though. Onufrak and the
others all said that seemed reasonable.

If there is one thing that none of the sportsmen’s groups
represented are supporting, it’s the idea of having a $20
conservation stamp. Smith had suggested that anyone who uses state
game lands – be they hunters or hikers, mountain bikers, bird
watchers, or whatever – first have to buy a stamp.

None of the groups who spoke expressed any support for that
idea.

That’s OK, Smith said. He won’t push the idea further, but he’s
glad it at least got some non-hunters to realize that hunters
bought the game lands with their license dollars, not state tax
dollars.

“So I’m achieving my point even if I’m losing the battle,” he
said.

In the meantime, it will be a challenge to get any fee hike
approved this year, Smith said. The commission is facing a
“definite, real financial crisis,” he said, but this is an election
year, and many House members may be afraid to raise fees.

If any license bill is to come up for a vote, it will likely be
in the few legislative voting days that fall between the general
election in early November and the end of the session Nov. 30.

The sportsmen’s groups have to sell the need for a license
increase between now and then, both to lawmakers and other
sportsmen, Smith said.

Rep. Sheila Miller, a Berks County Republican, seemed to agree.
She said some of the rank-and-file sportsmen in her district – who
aren’t necessarily members of the sportsmen’s groups represented at
the hearing – have complained of “constantly escalating” license
fees, even though the cost of hunting licenses have only gone up
twice in the last 25 years.

Smith said those sportsmen – who little more than a year ago
argued for maintaining separate Game and Fish & Boat
commissions, even if that was a more expensive option, now have to
“pay up or shut up.”

“You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. If you want no
merger, you have to pay,” Smith said.

Categories: News Archive

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *