Sunday, November 6, 2016

Failed legislation likely to mean change

Now comes the fallout.
State lawmakers essentially have wrapped up their legislative session. The House of Representatives has two work days left, Nov. 14 and 15. The Senate has one, Nov. 16.
Never say never in Pennsylvania politics — lawmakers once made a pretty regular practice of waiting until elections were over to pass controversial bills — but it seems unlikely anything substantive pertaining to sportsmen will move.
That's how most of this two-year session went.
Eighty-six hunting and fishing bills were introduced. Three — one shrinking the minimum acreage needed for a dog training area, one allowing for disabled hunters to use motorized wheelchairs and a third giving wildlife and waterways conservation officers broader disability benefits — became law.
One other, removing the prohibition on hunting with air-powered and semiautomatic rifles, passed the House and Senate and is awaiting Gov. Tom Wolf's signature. Assuming he gives it, both types of firearms likely will be legal in some form or fashion starting next fall.
But for better or worse, that's it.
Bills that would have allowed teens to try mentored hunting, permitted the use of leashed tracking dogs for finding wounded big game, broadened how money collected from selling Lake Erie stamps could be spent and others failed to move.
They officially will die when lawmakers go into recess.
That is the fate of legislation that would have allowed the Pennsylvania Game and Fish and Boat commissions to set their own license fees. Both wanted to raise prices. The cost of hunting licenses hasn't increased since 1999; fishing licenses since 2003.
Senators gave them the go-ahead. Representatives did not.
Sportsmen will feel the consequences.
Matt Hough, executive director of the Game Commission, said his agency is facing a budget deficit of $7.8 million for fiscal year 2017-18, which begins July 1. To address that it will eliminate some jobs through attrition — not replacing people who retire — and furlough others, he said.
Sportsmen can expect more visible cuts, though. Commissioners said the pheasant stocking program could be eliminated, for example.
Hough said specifics will be discussed when the commission board meets on Dec. 5.
“But there are some substantial cuts coming,” Hough said. “We don't have any choice.”
Anglers won't feel the same pain right away, said Fish and Boat executive director John Arway. There has been no talk of closing trout hatcheries, as was considered once before, he said.
But the commission will have to use its reserve fund to pay things like pension costs, he said. That can't go on forever, he added.
“Eventually we're going to run out of money,” Arway said.
Both directors said they will ask lawmakers again in January to raise license prices. Whether lawmakers do it on their own or give that power to the commissions is immaterial, they agreed.
“We just need a license increase. At this point I don't really care how we get it,” Hough said.
In the meantime, both agencies – and sportsmen – will have to get used to doing less with less.
Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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