PGC plotting budget cuts

Harrisburg — It’s going to be more than just pheasants.

Beyond that? Sportsmen should know soon.

When state lawmakers ended their recent legislative session without either raising hunting license fees or giving the Pennsylvania Game Commission the authority to increase prices on its own, they set the stage for budget cuts.

The commission is facing a $7.8 million deficit going into the 2017-18 fiscal year, said Executive Director Matt Hough. With no new revenue on the way, it’s got to cut spending, he said.

But where?

Game Commissioners are holding a work session in Harrisburg on Dec. 5 to talk about that.

The elimination of the pheasant program, which costs the agency about $5 million annually, has been brought up as one item that might be chopped.

No decisions have been made, said Commissioner Dave Putnam, of Centre County. But, he admitted, it’s certain the program will face changes.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it will go away completely.

“I’m sure we’re going to keep the program,” Putnam added.

But there will be changes, he said. Commission staff have been looking at ways to produce pheasants more efficiently, such as perhaps by purchasing day-old chicks rather than maintaining a brood flock to produce eggs, he said. The commission may shutter some of its game farms, too, he added.

How far the commission has to scale things back, and how many adult birds will result from all that on the landscape each fall, are the questions, he admitted.

The commission’s Howard Nursery, which produces seedlings for the public – including public access cooperators – could be another casualty of the budget cuts, said commission President Brian Hoover, of Delaware County. It costs $1.5 million to operate annually, he noted.

Management of state game lands is also something that will be under review, he noted.

The commission can’t sell game lands, Hoover said. But it can cut back on maintenance activities that could result in reduced access, he said.

Maintenance of things like roads, culverts and bridges could of necessity go by the wayside, particularly if that work is being done in whole or part for the benefit of non-license buyers – i.e. hikers, bikers, bird watchers and others – using the game lands, he said.

“There may come a point in the future where we shut some use down,” Hoover said.

The commission has done a good job to this point avoiding such cuts, said board member Bob Schlemmer, of Westmoreland County. In all his years in business, he said, his costs increased by about 3 percent annually. That was just a given that had to be accounted for, he said.

“We’re running a business, too. And we’re cutting all the corners we can cut,” Schlemmer said.

But there’s no fat left, he added.

“We’re trying to maintain services for the sportsmen and stay alive at the same time,” Schlemmer added.

Commissioners have instructed staff not just to cut big, visible programs because they’re easy or because they’ll generate the most attention, Putnam said. Board members want every cutback to be justified.

But that’s still going to mean pain for employees and hunters and trappers, added Commissioner Jim Daley, of Butler County.

“You can’t just be looking at small things. Saving on pencils and paper isn’t going to cut it,” he said.

Going forward, in 2017, the board plans to work with staff to start over with lawmakers and against make the case for new revenue, Hoover said.

That will be unpopular in one sense, he said. Having gone since 1999 without a license fee increase, and with lawmakers not willing to allow the commission to raise fees a bit at a time every year or two, the agency is going to have to ask for a substantial fee hike, he said.

That might prompt a change, Daley said.

The commission has historically tried to remain apolitical, he said, and not get too involved in legislative affairs.

“But it’s just not working,” he said.

The commission has been held hostage by a handful of lawmakers, Daley said. Perhaps the commission needs to be more aggressive or address things in a new way, he added.

In the meantime, it’s going to lay bare its troubles and how that will impact sportsmen.

In directing staff to prepare a list of possible cuts, they’ve asked staff to make clear what sportsmen are giving up, Putnam said. That’s something they should have done before, he added.

“Before, people were simply talking about a license increase or not having a license increase. They weren’t weighing out the cuts and what they might be giving up without a license increase,” Putnam said. “We’ve asked staff to articulate that.”

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