Legislature digs in over hatchery closing threat
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Of all the sources of discord in Harrisburg, trout usually isn’t one of them.
But a proposal to increase fishing-license fees has turned into a dispute that has lawmakers hoping to oust the head of the Fish and Boat Commission.
Without the long-sought fee increase, Commission Director John Arway said last fall some state hatcheries would have to close — meaning 240,000 fewer fish in state-stocked streams and lakes next year.
Some lawmakers perceived the cost-cutting announcement as a threat to leave their hometown waters empty of stocked trout.
Now, lawmakers want Arway out and say they won’t pass the bill allowing the commission to raise prices until he’s gone.
“Even if the cure for cancer was within that licensing bill, I don’t think there would be the motivation for the members of the committee or the House to pass it,” said House Game and Fisheries Chair Keith Gillespie (R., York).
He and his counterpart in the Senate both said they will pass the fishing bill only if they can pass a bill to oust Arway first. Thus, what seemed to be a quest for a simple fee increase — $6 the first year and 3 percent annually over the next four years — has fallen prey to Harrisburg dysfunction.
“We’re going to have to wait for a different political climate,” said Senate Game and Fisheries Chair Patrick Stefano (R., Fayette). “(Arway) is, right now, the major impediment of anything moving in our committees.”
The conflict provides a glimpse into the world of Harrisburg negotiations involving smaller state agencies and decision-making that affects thousands of Pennsylvanians. The Fish and Boat Commission, like most state fishing agencies, relies almost exclusively on fishing-license fees and federal tax money to operate and receives no money from the general fund. It stocks trout, cares for public waters, and keeps up hatcheries, dams, and other infrastructure.
“Anybody who cares about access to the beauty of nature, clean water, any of those types of issues should support people who fish and boat because that’s where the dollars are generated from,” said Frank Peterson, CEO of the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation, an organization formed by the federal government to promote fishing.
Fishing and boating bring in $1.2 billion to the Pennsylvania economy each year, Arway said. Following a national movement, officials here have been working to recruit new, younger, and more diverse anglers. Now, more than a million Pennsylvanians fish.
“If you talk to any rural community, they’ll tell you the importance of hunting and fishing in their neighborhoods,” Arway said. “We enforce pollution laws that a lot of people don’t understand, and make sure those wetlands along those streams are protected. … We do a lot of different things that really benefit all commonwealth (residents).”
The $21 cost of an annual resident fishing license hasn’t gone up since 2005. Meanwhile, the commission has made cuts including the loss of 66 jobs. Arway has sought the power for the commission to set its own fees, which the bills sitting in the House and Senate would grant.
“We just can’t cut anymore without sacrificing programs,” Arway said, citing a $110 million repair backlog. “(We have) major infrastructure needs that we can’t afford to fix unless we get a fee increase.”
The measure to allow the Fish and Boat Commission to change its fees first stalled last year because lawmakers tied its passage to a similar bill for the Game Commission, which seeks to raise its hunting-license fees for the first time in nearly two decades. Leaders believed it would be unfair to give one agency an increase before the other, but controversy about the Game Commission halted progress, creating “an immediate logjam” for the fish bill, said Rep. Jeff C. Wheeland (R., Lycoming).
In September, the Fish and Boat Commission said that without the increases, $2 million in cuts would need to be made. Arway drew up a list of three hatcheries that would have to close: one each in Potter, Erie, and Juniata counties. He also released a map illustrating stocking cuts that would be made as a result — located in the districts of lawmakers on the other side of the debate.
“The idea of the targeting was (to) not punish legislators that supported us,” said Arway, who said he took down the map and told legislators he would meet with them to work out a solution, but never got a response. “But that shifted the cuts to other districts, and they saw that as something that was not fair.”
It “blew up” negotiations, according to lawmakers. The Senate responded by passing a bill — sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R., Jefferson), who was one of the legislators “targeted” in the map — to limit the executive director’s term to eight years. Arway’s eight-year anniversary was on Friday.
“It really made for just a real mess,” Gillespie said. “The well got poisoned by the actions of that announcement.”
Now, Gillespie and Stefano plan to bring up the term-limit bill after legislators return to session March 19. If that goes through, they will try to take up the license bills for both commissions — but the game bill still needs amendments before either can pass, Gillespie said. He acknowledged that both fish and game commissions were “in dire need of the increases.”
If the fishing-license measure isn’t passed, the process to close hatcheries and decide which waters would get fewer fish would start after July and affect the 2019 fishing season, said Fish and Boat spokesman Eric Levis.
Why not pass the fishing bill first to get the needed funding change in place and then deal with politics?
“Because there’s a lot of very upset House members,” Stefano said. “I’m sure (Arway) has his side, but you can’t undo what has been done.”
Removing the executive director is up to the fish and boat commissioners, not the Legislature. But because the commissioners are “unwilling” to fire Arway, Stefano said, the lawmakers offended by him plan to change the law to effectively kick him out.
Wheeland, whose district includes a large fishing community, said he opposed the effort, saying the commissioners should decide who leads the agency.
“When you have a really, really good person and you term-limit them, what did you accomplish?” he said.
Gillespie acknowledged the move could raise questions but said it was necessary.
“This is just, I think, setting a bad precedent when you start introducing and passing legislation to do something that the commissioners themselves should be dealing with,” Gillespie said. “But they have at this point elected not to do it.”
Arway will retire if the bill passes, he said. For now, he’s scheduled to deliver annual reports to both committees in March. He said removing him won’t solve the funding problem.
“One of my objectives was to put the agency on a secure financial platform before I left and I’ve been working my hardest to do that over eight years,” he said. “This would be the final thing that I would like to do.”
The Fish and Boat Commission is on a statewide tour to talk about the financial situation and ask fishers and boaters to contact their legislators.
“It’s going to take a grassroots movement amongst the fishermen,” Wheeland said. “They’re just going to have to put pressure on their legislators to fish or cut bait.”
Feelings among anglers vary. John Pedrick, president of the Delaware River Fishermen’s Association and a former waterways conservation officer for the commission, said he was not in favor of the increase because he preferred an alternative solution. But he summed up the dispute this way:
“Politics,” he said, “are getting in the way of recreation.”