Both agencies have money problems, and admit raising license fees isn’t the best solution

Money makes the world go around.

In this case, it is one of the driving forces behind a proposed merger of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Finances are a significant problem for both agencies, according to their executive directors, who spoke with members of the media during a conference call last Friday facilitated by the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.

Matt Hough, executive director of the PGC, said there have been no game license increases since 1999 and that the PGC has “been going to the legislature since 2005 requesting (a) license increase but have not been successful to this point.”

Both entities received money from the shale gas impact fee, Act 13, and, Hough said, without Act 13 funding and oil and gas lease revenue from state game lands, “this agency would be in very serious financial shape…. Those two things have been a life saver.”

He noted that he would like to see a form of revenue that the PGC could count on each year.

On the PFBC side, Executive Director John Arway said that his entities “continue(s) to talk about how we are on a fiscal slope as opposed to a fiscal cliff.”

He said that the PFBC has been able to identify spending cuts to offset decreasing revenues. Arway said his agency’s recourse is to “go to the legislature and ask for a license increase.” But he explained that license sales on the fishing side have declined over the last 20 years and history has shown that when license fees are increased, license sales go down eight to 10 percent.

Arway said the PFBC received $1 million in Act 13 funding and was also able to receive transportation funding for work on high hazard dam and design work. However, he also noted that the PFBC could experience a “fiscal cliff” in 2016 or 2017.

With both directors standing in opposition to a potential merger, will the agencies be solvent looking forward?

“I think we will be,” said Arway. “(We are) not going to spend more than we earn.”

He explained that the emphasis is to seek to increase fishing and boating registration, knowing that will provide a revenue bump. “(We) have an internal goal of increasing license sales 10 percent over the next four years,” he said, noting that the challenge is growing license numbers while the Commonwealth’s population slowly declines.

He spoke about the need to diversify the PFBC’s revenue streams, incorporating license sales, boat registrations and federal excise taxes. Additionally, Arway noted that Pennsylvania’s 1.1 million anglers spend over $500 million in the industry. He argued that some of the six percent sales tax collected by the state, approximately $30 million, should be reinvested by the legislature back into programs “to enhance boating and fishing.”

For the PGC, Hough said that since the early 1990s hunting licenses have declined one percent per year, except for the last four years. He said that trend has been stabilized and that the PGC is now seeing an increase in hunting license sales. He credited new initiatives, especially among women and youth, for the bump.

“What we have done in the past, when funding gets short, (we) cut programs and personnel,” said Hough. “We operate like a business. We don’t get any general fund money.”

He explained that the PGC matches programs with revenue so if a program is cut, and revenue returns, the program will be brought back.

Arway cited the funding model in Virginia, where the legislature allows two percent of sales tax up to $13 million to be utilized for fish and game programs.

“We believe that same model could apply here in Pennsylvania,” he said.