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State rep. blocks fishing license increases

Bob Frye
| Sunday, March 21, 2010

The price you paid for your fishing license this year is the price you can expect to pay in the future.

Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission officials have been pursuing the authority to make small, incremental fee increases. But state lawmakers -- who would have to give them the OK to do that -- have told them to forget about it.

State Rep. Ed Staback made that clear recently.

Brian Barner, director of the commission's bureau of administration, told members of the House Game and Fisheries Committee that the agency would like to be able to raise the cost of fishing licenses by about $1 per year and the cost of trout stamps by about 25 cents per year for each of the next five years. It would also like the OK to add a one-time $1 to the cost of a fishing license to fund a land access and habitat acquisition program.

But Staback, the Lackawanna County Democrat who chairs the committee, said to forget about it. What's more, he expressed frustration that the commission was even asking.

Staback said he thought he had made it "perfectly clear" on several other occasions that the Fish and Boat Commission will not be getting any fee increase until after the Pennsylvania Game Commission gets one first.

"There is a protocol that is followed for license fee increases for the two agencies," Staback said. "That is what the agencies alternate when they get a fee increase and never do the two agencies get an increase in the same year. And neither agency receives two increases before the other has received one.

"I thought I made that very clear in the past. And as far as I know, that pattern remains in effect."

That makes the Fish and Boat Commission 0-for-2 with lawmakers.

Gary Moore, the commission's legislative liaison, told members of the commission board back in January that Republican Sen. Joe Scarnati, the president of the Senate, said that body would not increase the cost of licenses, fees or permits of any type until the economy improves.

"He said that straight out, and so far he's been sticking to it," Moore said then.

That hasn't stopped the commission from trying for more money, though.

Some agency staffers -- pointing out that members of Staback's committee told them two years ago to figure out innovative ways of funding the agency -- have been pursuing a license increase ever since. Barner continued beating that drum.

He said the need for a license fee increase is becoming especially clear starting this year.

Typically, the commission makes more than it spends in the first few years after a license fee increase, he said. It banks that "extra" money as it can. There comes a time, though, when fees aren't covering expenses, and then the commission has to start dipping into its reserves.

The commission will have reach that point this year, making the current fiscal year a "pivotal" one, he said.

"During the next several fiscal periods, we will begin to spend down -- or use up -- our cash reserves to maintain levels of service currently being provided to the anglers, boaters and other citizens of the Commonwealth."

Right now -- not counting money reserved for debt service, restricted accounts and the like -- the commission has $25 million in its Fish Fund and $16 million in its Boat Fund, Barner said.

That will have to do for a while, Staback said.

"Obviously, the focus of this committee is on the Pennsylvania Game Commission," Staback said.

Additional Information:

Idea floated

One thing Rep. Ed Staback said he was interested in was the idea of a sort of 'family fishing license.' It might be offered for husbands and wives at less than the cost of two individual licenses, he said.

The Fish and Boat Commission is not wild about the idea -- at least not as a way to make much money.

'Some of what we've seen in cases like that is that these work relatively well in promotional situations, but they're probably not going to be the answer to sustaining the agency, funding-wise, nor do they attract a lot of people to fishing,' said Brian Barner.

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