By John Finnerty
The Meadville Tribune
A decade ago, a state-commissioned study found that merging the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Fish and Boat Commission would save $5 million a year while eliminating 71 jobs.
The effort stalled and Pennsylvania remains the only state in the nation with one enforcement agency for hunting and another for fishing and boating.
Now, with both agencies approaching the Legislature with their hats in their hands, lawmakers say it’s time to take another look at merging the agencies.
The move comes after the Fish and Boat Commission announced a controversial plan to close two trout hatcheries in a bid to save money, although operations at the hatcheries in Linesville and Corry would not change.
Rather than make cuts in service for the public, lawmakers now wonder if there might be other ways for the agencies to reduce their expenses by eliminating inefficiencies associated with duplicating efforts, said Republican Rep. Martin Causer of McKean County, the chairman of the House Game and Fisheries Committee.
The enforcement activities of the two agencies might be a good example of the type of duplication that could be solved by merging the agencies, Causer said. Since there is little overlap between the heart of the fishing season and most hunting seasons, lawmakers wonder whether the same officers might be able to police both.
“They’re busy at different times of the year,” Causer said.
The two agencies have a combined total of 1,301 employees – 471 at the Fish and Boat Commission and 830 at the Game Commission.
Government records show that the Game Commission has 105 wildlife conservation officers with a starting wage of $39,850 and a top salary of $61,966. In addition, there are 24 wildlife conservation supervisors with salaries ranging from $54,309 to $72,231.
The Fish and Boat Commission has 71 waterways conservation officers, also making a starting salary of $39,850, and with a top salary of $59,254. There are seven waterways conservation supervisors making between $62,091 and $75,757.
John Arway, the executive director of the Fish and Boat Commission is paid $120,450. Carl Roe, his counterpart at the Game Commission, is paid $117,849.
Causer said the only people he has heard object to the merger are the people employed by the agencies.
Also supporting the push to examine a merger is Game and Fisheries Committee member Republican Rep. Greg Lucas, whose Fifth District includes western Crawford County. While he is in favor of taking a look, he is not entirely clear that the effort will be worthwhile.
Lucas added that it appears there is greater interest in a merger from the Fish and Boat Commission side of things.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission has received more than $24 million in bonus payments alone from deals with gas companies in the last two years. In addition, the commission has received more than $6 million in royalty payments.
That money puts the game commission on a more solid financial footing, and raises questions about whether there is a balance in terms of who would benefit from a merger.
Rep. Gary Haluska of Cambria County, the Democratic chairman of the Game and Fisheries Committee, said prior efforts to merge the agencies were thwarted by concerns that a merged commission would lack the expertise of the individual agencies. There is always the possibility for a solution that would call for separate policy-setting boards, while merging the operating staffs of the agencies, to eliminate duplicate positions, Haluska said.
Still, after serving 19 years on the Game and Fisheries Committee, Haluska said he is not optimistic that efforts to merge the agencies will be successful.
Causer said that hopes the full House will quickly pass a resolution backing the study of a merger. Once it is authorized to begin the study, the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee has indicated it would take about six months to complete the report, he said.
The Budget and Finance Committee is in the midst of a regularly-scheduled performance audit of the Fish and Boat Commission, so some of the background data is already being compiled, Causer said.
Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.