License fee increase bills advancing
Harrisburg — Legislation that would allow the Pennsylvania Game and Fish & Boat commissions to set their own license fees is inching closer toward becoming law.
The state Senate passed Senate Bills 1166 and 1168, which apply to Game and Fish & Boat respectively, this summer. The House of Representatives has begun considering them now, too.
If they approve the bills in the dozen or so session days left between now and Nov. 15, they’ll go to Gov. Tom Wolf for his signature.
The bills got to this point pretty easily in the Senate. They passed that chamber by matching votes of 46-2.
Some have speculated they would have a tougher time in the House of Representatives, and that may be true based on a recent committee hearing.
The House Game and Fisheries Committee met on Sept. 20 to consider the bills. Each was moved on but by votes of 17-8 in each case, with some vocal, if minority, opposition.
Most of the debate centered around the bill pertaining to Game.
Greg Raffensperger, executive director of the committee, noted before any other discussion that neither bill would give the commissions the authority to do what they want without oversight.
If the commissions chose to raise license fees, lawmakers would have to give any increases preliminary approval. That would have to be followed by at least 30 days of taking public comment, and at least one public hearing.
Final approval would follow all that. Even then, they’d have to submit their adopted increases – and all of the testimony they’d received – to the Senate and House Game and Fisheries committees for review. Those bodies could do nothing, in effect accepting the increases, or object to them.
That would have to occur within 30 calendar days or 10 legislative session days, whichever was longer, Raffensperger said.
If committee members objected to the fees, they could say so to the full Senate and/or House, which would then have the option of either concurring with the objections or not. If they did, it would fall to the governor to either accept the increases or not.
If he disagreed with the General Assembly, it would still have the option to override his veto, Raffensperger said.
Both bills contain what’s known as a sunset provision, too. If passed, they only grant the commissions authority to set their own fees until July 15, 2019. Lawmakers would have to decide then whether to allow them to continue having that power, or take it back.
All of those safeguards are meant to serve as checks and balances on what is a “rather major change” in terms of who gets to set license fees, said Keith Gillespie, the York County Republican who serves as majority chairman of the committee.
Traditionally, only lawmakers have had that power.
Still, that wasn’t enough for some members of the committee. They said they couldn’t support either bill.
Rep. Joe Emrick, a Republican from Northampton County, said he’d asked the Game Commission back in April for information on how many new kinds of licenses – like elk licenses and Disease Management Area permits – it had created since the last license fee increase in 1999, and how much money those had generated. He said he got no answers until the night before the hearing, and even then it was just a simple list.
He also said he’d learned that the agency had generated more than $160 million over the last 10 years or so from natural resources extraction, such as Marcellus shale gas money.
Much of that money, he said, according to “perception if not reality” went to pay staff. He noted the commission spends about 80 percent of its annual $100 million-plus budget on salary and benefits.
He said he was opposed to Senate Bill 1166 for those reasons.
“I don’t think I can justify to sportsmen that we should raise their hunting license fees based on the information that I’ve just conveyed,” Emrick said.
Rep. Dave Maloney, an even more vocal and frequent critic of the commission, likewise said he was opposed to Bill 1166. The Game Commission has been lax in listening to and responding to the wants of sportsmen, he said.
It’s also been less than transparent in terms of showing what money it’s generated and where it’s gone, he added.
“And for me to go home to the sportsmen, which I have been the majority of my life, who I have heard from for decades, and to tell that that it’s OK, all is well, would be a lie,” Maloney said.
He even went so far as to make a motion to table consideration of Bill 1166. Lawmakers should take it up only after the state Auditor General’s Office completes an audit of the Game Commission slated to start in January, he said.
Gillespie noted that tabling the bill until after the first of the year would mean it would have to be reintroduced, and go through the entire legislative process, from step one. That would undo 20 months of work.
He argued against supporting the motion. He said Bill 1166 had been vetted and discussed thoroughly and has the support of a lot of sportsmen’s groups.
“I don’t know what your phone and emails have been like the last 24 hours. But far and wide across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, they want this bill voted on and moved on back to the Senate after we’ve done the amendments, get it to the governor’s desk, and get this money that’s been so long overdue over the last 17 years,” Gillespie said.
He said lawmakers have exhibited a lack of “political intestinal fortitude” in not granting the Game Commission a fee increase before now “because it’s looked on as a tax or a fee and nobody wants to go back and try to defend that.”
But that’s now having consequences, he said.
“And yet programs and agencies and divisions within the bureaus are being eviscerated and potentially the sportsmen and wildlife and everything we enjoy associated with that is being put at risk. We need to do it now.”
Maloney’s motion was defeated and the bill passed.
Discussion then turned to Bill 1168, which would give the Fish & Boat Commission power to set its fees. That sparked a lot less talk, though both Maloney and Emrick said they opposed it, too.
“I’m far more sympathetic to the Fish & Boat Commission. However, when an agency is holding in reserve about 100 percent of their budget, I can’t justify raising license fees,” Emrick said.
Maloney said he would rather wait to support a fee increase for Fish & Boat, though he did not specify why.
The bill passed the committee despite their objections.