Game Commission explains need for fee increase.
Pennsylvania -(Ammoland.com)- Quit your job.
Pack up all your worldly possessions and ship them off to Hawaii.
Make a home for yourself there.
And then, and only then, will you be able to purchase a resident hunting license that costs less than Pennsylvania’s.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission last week unveiled a proposal to increase fees for hunting and furtaker licenses for the first time in 16 years. It is a step toward establishing sustainable funding for the agency, which in recent years has seen skyrocketing employee-benefit costs that are beyond its control. Any license-fee increase must be authorized by legislative action.
The Game Commission has managed Pennsylvania’s wildlife resources for more than 120 years. And since 1913, when the state began selling hunting licenses to finance wildlife management, license revenue has been used to rebuild wildlife populations, protect wildlife through law enforcement, and assemble a 1.5 million-acre state game lands system to provide wildlife habitat and public hunting opportunities.
All of it has made Pennsylvania one of the best states in the country to hunt deer, bear, wild turkeys and elk, not to mention small game and furbearers. The Game Commission’s ring-necked pheasant program – which in recent years has produced more than 220,000 pheasants annually for release on public lands – provides some of the best pheasant action on the continent.
While most of Pennsylvania’s hunters and trappers likely agree they get a lot for their license dollar, many might not realize just how little licenses cost here, in comparison to other states.
And even if the Game Commission’s proposal is adopted as drafted, and fees for hunting and furtaker licenses are increased to $39 over a five-year period, Pennsylvania still would have the eighth-cheapest license in the nation, based on the existing fees in other states.
Game Commission Executive Director R. Matthew Hough said it’s important hunters and trappers understand why an increase is needed.
“License-fee increases have not come about very often in Pennsylvania,” Hough said. “In fact, this 16-year span is the second-longest period the Game Commission ever has gone without an increase. The longest span was from the Great Depression through World War II.
“Seeking an increase is not something we take lightly,” Hough said. “We understand families often have tight budgets, and everyone needs to live within their means. That’s some of the reason why our license fees are among the lowest in the nation.
“But we also want our hunters and trappers to realize we, as an agency, are facing overwhelming financial challenges, many of which are beyond our control and are certain to continue into the future. Without a license-fee increase we soon will not be able to provide the same level of service. We will have to make cuts. And, to me, that would be much more costly for hunters and trappers than the increase we’ve proposed.”
How is wildlife management funded?
State wildlife agencies like the Game Commission typically get most of their funding from license-buying hunters and trappers.
Today in Pennsylvania, almost 40 percent of the Game Commission’s revenue comes from the sale of hunting and furtaker licenses. Other primary sources of income include federal Pittman-Robertson funds collected from an excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition, and revenue derived from the sale of natural resources like timber, oil and gas on lands owned by the Game Commission.
With these revenues, largely generated by hunters and trappers, the Game Commission manages 480 species of wild birds and mammals, most of which aren’t hunted.
Unlike a number of other states, the Game Commission does not receive tax money from the state’s general fund to help pay for staff and operations.
Why is more money needed?
In Pennsylvania, fees for hunting and furtaker licenses can’t be changed without approval from the state General Assembly through legislative action.
It’s been 16 years since the last increase took effect in 1999, raising the cost of resident adult hunting and furtaker licenses from $11.75 to $19.
While just about everyone understands how most costs have risen sharply over the past 16 years due to inflation, the Game Commission – as an employer – has seen its employee-benefit costs more than double over that time. In the fiscal year the last increase was approved, the agency’s overall personnel costs totaled $40.4 million. In the current fiscal year, they total $82.1 million.
And there are fewer Game Commission employees today than there were 16 years ago.
Most of the increase in personnel costs is due to rising benefit costs, which have doubled in the past decade. Salaries have remained relatively flat during that period.
Personnel costs largely are outside the agency’s control. Game Commission employees are state employees. Many work under negotiated contracts, and all of them are entitled to the same benefits as other state workers.
The only way the Game Commission could reduce personnel costs significantly would be to cut the number of employees. But without a sufficient workforce, the agency would compromise its ability to carry out its mission of managing and protecting the state’s wildlife and its habitats.
In recent budget years, the Game Commission’s expenses have been outpacing its revenues, and this trend not only is projected to continue, but the funding gap is expected to widen.
Many planned projects already have been put on hold because of funding shortfalls. The Game Commission cut its operations budget by $11 million in 2015-16 to cover the rising personnel costs that make up the bulk of its $106 million budget total.
But even if the Game Commission maintains personnel and operations at current levels, expenses will outweigh revenues by a whopping $35.5 million by 2019-20, based on projections. And that would be only to continue the services provided now, and wouldn’t include implementing the objectives in the strategic plan that carries the agency into 2020.
The Game Commission’s strategic plan identifies the need for sustainable agency funding to continue carrying out its mission.
Hunting license fees
Pennsylvania’s hunting license fees are among the lowest in the nation.
Only Hawaii has a lower fee for resident adults seeking opportunities similar to those a Pennsylvania hunter gets for the cost of his or her general license and state migratory game bird license.
In many states, those opportunities cost resident hunters four times as much, if not more.
In New Jersey, for example, the cost to hunt antlered deer, spring and fall turkeys, pheasants and other small game and waterfowl (not including the cost of a federal duck stamp) costs adult residents $122. In other top hunting states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan, residents pay $116, $106 and $73, respectively, for those same opportunities.
Compare that to Pennsylvania, where residents pay less than $25 for otherwise identical licenses.
Additionally, many other wildlife agencies receive appropriations from their state’s general fund, or revenue from state sales or income taxes to supplement the revenue generated through their higher license fees.
The Game Commission currently receives no funding from the state general fund.
The Game Commission’s proposal to increase fees for hunting and furtaker licenses would not affect junior hunting licenses, junior combination licenses or senior hunting licenses.
Those licenses would remain at $5, $8 and $12, respectively, plus $1.70 in fees that are split between the issuing agent and license processor.
Most other resident and nonresident license fees would increase three times in five years under the proposal. The cost of a resident adult hunting or furtaker license would increase by $10 in the first year fees are changed, then would increase by $5 in the third year, and another $5 in the fifth year of the plan.
Fees for bear, antlerless deer, archery, muzzleloader, migratory game bird and special wild turkey (second spring gobbler) licenses also would see increases as part of the proposal. A chart showing the proposed increases is included with this news release. More information about the proposal for an increase also can be found at the Game Commission’s website.
But as part of its proposal, the Game Commission also seeks to create a new license that could be used to participate in just about all hunting and trapping opportunities in Pennsylvania, and at a significant discount for those who purchase it.
The Ultimate Outdoorsman license would include a general hunting license, furtaker license, special wild turkey license, and licenses for bear, archery, muzzleloader and migratory game bird.
If approved, the resident Ultimate Outdoorsman license would be available initially for $125. That’s only $25 more than residents pay now for those licenses combined. And if license fees increase as proposed, the Ultimate Outdoorsman license would save hunters $23 compared to buying the licenses individually.
Fees for the Ultimate Outdoorsman license would increase incrementally by $25 in the third year, and another $25 in the fifth year, based on the proposal. In the fifth year, the $175 license would result in a savings of $33.
Antlerless deer hunters with an Ultimate Outdoorsman license still would need a valid antlerless deer license, DMAP permit or DMA 2 Antlerless Deer Permit for each deer they harvest, except during the flintlock muzzleloader season, when an antlerless deer may be taken with an unused antlered deer tag. Those participating in the seasons for bobcats, fishers and river otters also would need valid permits in addition to their licenses. Elk applications and licenses also would continue to be sold separately.
Where did all the gas money go?
While the financial projections that are driving the need for a license-fee increase speak for themselves, some have asked about the revenue the Game Commission receives from timber sales and energy leases on game lands, and why they can’t be used to make up funding shortfalls.
The answer is, they have been used in that manner.
About 17 percent of the revenues generated by the oil, gas and mineral program since 2005 have been used to purchase an additional 43,731 acres of state game lands. But the bulk of oil, gas and mineral revenues has been used as stopgap funding that has allowed the Game Commission’s operations to continue, even as its total expenses began to outweigh its total revenues.
Because gas and timber revenues are market-driven, they are unpredictable and therefore unreliable sources of income. In recent years, both timber sales and energy leases have generated less money. And industry analysts predict market prices will remain depressed for the foreseeable future.
The top year for timber revenue was 2005, when markets were high and the program netted about $12 million. In 2014, timber sales resulted in only about $550,000 in actual profits. Revenue related to Marcellus shale leases and other elements of the agency’s oil, gas and mineral program peaked in 2013, when $24 million was raised. In the current fiscal year, profits are projected at $22.5 million.
While Marcellus shale leases continue to be an important source of agency revenue, there is minimal opportunity remaining for further Marcellus shale development on game lands.
Financial present and future
As expenses began outpacing revenues in recent years, the Game Commission responded with major project and program cuts.
Plans to build a new visitor center at Pymatuning Wildlife Management Area have been put on hold, as have plans to build a central office for the agency’s biologists. Habitat projects have been scaled back, and some wildlife-research projects might be eliminated. Further infrastructure improvements within the state’s elk range are being put off. And positions have been eliminated or left unfilled.
Still, further cuts will be needed without a timely increase in funding to the agency, Game Commission Executive Director R. Matthew Hough said. Even the popular pheasant-stocking program is vulnerable in the current financial climate.
Hough said, however, he anticipates better days ahead. Many of the state’s hunters and trappers already have stepped up to support a license-fee increase, and if history is any guide, a clear majority quickly will become evident. It’s been that way for 100 years, he said.
“Hunting and trapping tradition runs deep here in Pennsylvania, and for generations, our hunters and trappers have been important partners in conservation who, not only have recognized the need for timely funding increases to the agency, but have stepped up to provide that funding by paying higher license fees,” Hough said. “I would expect nothing different this time around. Our hunters and trappers care about wildlife, and they understand their license dollars go well beyond allowing them time in the field; those dollars help to protect and sustain wildlife and wildlife habitat. And given that it’s been 16 years since the last increase, and our license fees currently are among the absolute lowest in the country, I expect support for an increase will be overwhelmingly clear.”
The Game Commission already has met with a number of sportsmen’s organizations to discuss a license-fee increase. And Hough said most the comments he’s heard initially have been supportive.
“No one wants to pay more,” Hough said. “But many of the hunters I’ve spoken with have told me they’re willing to pay more. They recognize the cost of just about everything has gone up, and sympathize with us, as an agency, in having to deal with ever-growing expenses.
“They want us to continue to provide the same or increased levels of service,” Hough said. “In fact, many hunters seem to react to news of the proposed increase in the same way. They say, ‘It’s about time.’”
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