Looks like merger is going nowhere
Harrisburg — If state lawmakers have a burning desire to merge the Pennsylvania Game and Fish & Boat commissions into one agency, they’re hiding it well.
Rep. Martin Causer, R-Potter, sponsored House Resolution 129 last year. It called for the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to study the pros and cons of melding the two agencies into one.
That study was done over the winter, with a final report released earlier this spring.
The House of Representatives Game and Fisheries Committee – for which Causer is majority chairman – finally held a hearing on the resolution on June 4.
Fewer than 10 members of the committee attended. Only three asked questions or made comments and two of them – Causer being the exception – said they thought a merger was a bad idea or unworkable.
And virtually all left before the hearing officially ended.
Before that, they heard Patricia Berger, senior counsel for the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, say that merging the two agencies would save about $4.8 million annually.
There don’t appear to be a lot of efficiencies gained by a merger, Berger noted.
“Although the management of these [natural] resources by a single entity is certainly feasible, the combined expenditure per license of both the Fish & Boat Commission and the Game Commission is already lower than the average of other states,“ she said.
“That suggests there may be limited opportunities for significant savings.”
A combined agency would have to, at least in the short term, keep all of the buildings currently owned by the two commissions now to house all of its employees and equipment, she added.
“So virtually all of the savings were from personnel,” said Phil Durgin, executive director of the Budget and Finance Committee. “Whatever the other savings were, were relatively minor, as far as we could determine.”
Causer disagreed a bit, saying that $4.8 million was substantial in the eyes of his constituents. If the commissions had been merged back in 2003, the second of the three times a merger has been examined, “we would have saved several million dollars,” he added.
Gary Haluska, the Cambria County Democrat who serves as minority chairman of the game and fisheries committee, noted that the two commissions are each managed now by volunteer boards that meet quarterly.
He said he’s not sure a combined agency, with responsibility for managing so many fish and wildlife species, could realistically handle all of its duties meeting only that frequently.
Pennsylvania ranks second only to Alaska in the number of miles of streams and rivers it has, for example, so just managing that is a huge job, he said.
“That’s something, in the back of my mind, that says no matter how much you save, a million here or a million there, are you really going to have the product at the end of the day that you want in this state in regards to hunting and fishing,” Haluska said.
Durgin added to that, pointing out that “a lot” of states with combined fish and wildlife agencies have a separate agency for managing boating. That wouldn’t be the case with a merger here, he said.
“So yeah, it would be a lot on the table, no doubt,” Durgin said.
The third lawmaker to speak on the issue was Rep. David Maloney, a Berks County Republican. He said the fact that the two commissions – and the Game Commission in particular with regards to deer management – had “created a lot of controversy” by straying from their missions.
That’s what was really behind the merger study he said, suggesting unhappiness on the part of sportsmen and lawmakers “creates the push to look at other options.”
Still, he said he does not support a merger, in part because no one’s asked sportsmen what they think of the idea.
Causer said the committee will continue to study the idea of a merger, which he said has many components besides just cost savings. But even he admitted that change is hard, especially in Pennsylvania.
“Anybody who works in this building for any significant period of time knows that change occurs very slow here,” Causer said.