The idea of merging the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) and the PA Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) has come back to life. A study in 2003 indicated that such a merger would save money by eliminating staff positions, consolidating regional offices and reducing the motor vehicle pool required by two agencies.
Now, House Resolution 129 has been introduced by PA State Rep. Martin Causer of Potter County, who is chairman of the House Game and Fisheries Committee, directing the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to study the financial feasibility and potential cost savings of merging the PGC and the PFBC.
Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation where management and oversight of fishing, boating and wildlife activities are managed by two separate, independent agencies. With the current financial difficulties faced by the PGC and PFBC, the possibility of a merger is a timely topic to consider.
The PFBC is already cutting costs by announcing the closures of two state fish hatcheries in 2014; Oswayo Hatchery in Coudersport, Potter County and the Bellefonte Hatchery in Center County and is scaling back its trout stocking program. Those moves would save the agency an estimated $2 million of its $9 million budget shortfall projected for 2017.
PFBC Executive Director John Arway said the closings are necessary because the agency has not been allowed to increase the price of a fishing license in 16 years. The state Legislature has refused to allow the price of fishing and hunting licenses to rise.
The Bellefonte Hatchery supplies trout stockings for here in Lehigh County. The PFBC plans to stock 3,926,300 in Pennsylvania waters this year. With the two hatchery closings there will be about 785,000 less trout annually stocked. Both hatcheries will provide some fish next year until the complete shutdown of the facilities at the end of 2014 unless alternate funding can be used to save them.
A merger of the PGC and the PFBC might not be the best approach to cutting costs, said PFBC Commissioner Norm Gavlick. Combining agencies will lead to more layers of bureaucracy which could threaten the efficiency of services and programs already in place.
“It changes not only the efficiency, but the timeliness in which things are done,” Gavlick said. “By combining us together and having to deal with all the major programs - deer, trout, Game Lands, the rivers, it could be an overload for just one agency.”
While Gavlick doesn’t believe the PFBC board or staff would support a merger, he does understand why the issue would come up now. The PFBC is hurting financially while the Game Commission is realizing a revenue boost from royalties generated by Marcellus Shale drilling. A merger, he said, would be an easy way for the legislature to funnel more cash to the PFBC.
“In the eyes of the legislators, there might be more motivation this time to support a merger,” Gavlick said. “Still, the last time there was a study it showed that a merger was financially feasible and it still didn’t get done.”
Support for a merger is lacking from the PGC, at least with Commissioner Jay Delaney. While the PGC board has yet to discuss the matter, Delaney said the system of two independent agencies has worked for a long time. Still, Delaney said he has no problem with legislators looking at more cost-effective ways to run government, he just doesn’t believe a merger falls under that category.
“I’m confident if they were to do the study they would see you’re not going to save a lot of money by doing this,” Delaney said, adding that a merger could compromise the level of services the agencies perform for hunters and anglers.
He also said the Game Commission really doesn’t cost general taxpayers anything because it’s funded by the less than 10 percent of the state’s population that purchases hunting licenses.
“The last time the legislature looked at this in 2003 they saw there wasn’t a huge cost-savings factor and sportsmen didn’t support it,” Delaney said. “We have independent agencies to hear from all of the stakeholders and independent boards to make the decision on what’s best. It’s worked well that way for over 100 years.”