Merge The Game and Fish Commissions?
Representative Bruce Smith (R), Chairman of the House Game and Fisheries Committee, recently introduced a resolution to investigate combining our independent Pennsylvania Game Commission with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
House Resolution 15, which was amended and passed by the House on February 11, authorizes the committee to “examine the financial feasibility, impact, costs and savings, by eliminating duplications of personnel and services.” It also gives the committee “the power to hold public hearings as it deems necessary,” and to report on its findings no later than November 30, 2003.
Don’t get excited, this is nothing new. During the past 50 years this idea has been investigated five times and five times it was deemed to be a bad idea. Sportsmen and women will get excited, however — that’s what happened in 1989 when this was last investigated.
Is this idea good or bad? I guess that depends on who you talk to, the motives of the “combiners” and exactly how a combination of the agencies would be accomplished.
Here are a few facts and things to ponder.
Pennsylvania currently has four agencies that regulate most of the things important to those of us who love the outdoors. In a nutshell: The Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC) regulates fishing, boating, amphibians and reptiles. The Game Commission (PGC) regulates hunting, trapping and non-game birds and mammals. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) enforces environmental laws, and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) manages the state parks and state forests. Many states, such as Delaware, do all of this with one agency.
All other states except Pennsylvania have combined their agencies that regulate hunting and fishing into one. Why not Pennsylvania?
It wasn’t too long ago that one large state agency, the Department of Environmental Protection (DER), was split into two smaller agencies – DEP and DCNR – to better manage their own areas. These two smaller agencies seem to be working well, so why combine the Game and Fish commissions?
Many of the other states’ game and fish agencies are supported with tax money and are directly controlled by their state governments. At their worst, several levels of wildlife managers lose their jobs with each change of governor. In some cases, the new people’s best qualifications for their positions is whose campaign they contributed to. Wildlife management policies are controlled by the legislature or the governor rather than wildlife managers.
Missouri, for example, partially funds fish and game management with 1/8 of one percent of their sales tax. This system, by the way, was overwhelmingly approved by the state’s voters.
Back to HR 15, some suspect that Smith’s motives in the end are to allow the state to gain control of the now independent commissions. Smith denies that contention. He said, “If legislation is written to merge the commissions, I will strongly suggest that the new agency be independent and not made part of another state department.”
Others know of Smith’s and other legislators’ disagreements with PFBC Executive Director Peter Colangelo and his Deputy Director Dennis Guise. Could Smith’s resolution just be another way to put pressure on Colangelo and Guise? It was rumored before that Tom Ridge, when governor, wanted to combine the agencies and make current PGC executive director Vern Ross the head of both.
There are those who look at a combination as a cost savings measure. They say management and employees could be cut and duplicated services eliminated. Smith even went as far as to suggest that a merger could mean lower license fees.
During the next few months, I would expect to see both agencies circling the wagons to protect their own turf. The labor union representing agency workers will also get into the act. All of these strategies will make learning the facts more difficult.
What Would I Favor?
I’d like what is best for our wildlife populations, the habitat, and the continuation of our treasured outdoor sports. The wildlife commissions should not be political footballs.
Hunting, fishing, boating and trapping generate millions of dollars each year through state sales tax, income tax and gasoline tax. It only seems fair to me that some percentage, even a relatively small slice, of that tax pie comes back to our wildlife agencies. Maybe this would be a new tax, such as the trash truck tipping fee that was proposed last year or a tax on birdseed, binoculars, tents, hiking boots, etc. I would, however, hope that the agencies, or combined agency remain independent.
Apart from the top management levels, I see little in the way of duplicated services. I also fear that a combined agency would attempt to save money exactly where it shouldn’t — by cutting the very people who protect our wildlife — the conservation officers. Smith has already hinted at cutting the field force of WCOs. I, for one, would rather see a doubling of the field force, with more protection for wildlife rather than less protection. The WCOs of both agencies don’t duplicate services. As for Smith’s mention of decreased license fees – don’t bet on it.
One last thought – consider if it applies to you. Most sportsmen who favor combining the current sister agencies are usually unhappy with one or both of them. They imagine the combined agency being run like the “sister” that they favor or somehow the creation of a single agency instantly correcting all wrongs.
I see two different agencies with two different focuses and management styles. What would it be like if the Fish and Boat Commission took over the Game Commission? Or, how would the PGC run the Fish Commission? Interesting thoughts to ponder and I’ll discuss them in a future column.
Hunters and anglers, do become informed. Read the reports and testify at a hearing. Contact your legislator. Let’s all promote what is best for wildlife.
Mark Nale can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com
Merge The Game and Fish Commissions?