fishing

HARRISBURG – Legislation is moving in both chambers of the General Assembly to allow the Fish and Boat Commission to hike the cost of a fishing license over three years by as much as $9 for Pennsylvania anglers and $20 for out-of-state fishing enthusiasts.

Both increases could translate into about 40 percent hikes in the cost of obtaining a fishing license. The price of a fishing license in Pennsylvania has not changed since 2005 despite lobbying by the Fish and Boat Commission, because the legislature has been unwilling to support the move, said state Rep. Carl Metzgar, R-Somerset County.

Metzgar said he doesn’t consider the General Assembly’s position over the last decade-plus to be a “failure to act,” but rather “a decision,” that license fee increases weren’t appropriate.

“They say they have two problems: Not enough fishermen and not enough revenue,” he said. “There’s an argument that I’d make that maybe if they lowered the price, they’d get more fishermen.”

House Bill 808, which would allow the agency to enact that schedule of license increases, passed the state House on Wednesday by a vote of 151-39. Similar legislation, Senate Bill 533, was introduced in that chamber on Tuesday.

Under current law, the legislature sets fishing license costs. Lawmakers who opposed the measure said the plan is flawed because it gives too much freedom to the Fish and Boat Commission and allows legislators to try to insulate themselves from public accountability over the price hikes.

“It allows the Fish and Boat Commission to raise fees and there’s no accountability. These people aren’t elected,” said state Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Lawrence County. “I’m not adverse to an increase in the cost of fishing licenses and I think the Fish and Boat Commission’s plan is fair, but people ought to be accountable to the public.”

State Rep. Jim Rigby, R-Cambria County, said that the Fish and Boat Commission hasn’t adequately demonstrated that they need to increase the fees, and moving to allow them that power didn’t make sense to him.

“I just don’t think that’s good practice,” he said. “I couldn’t justify doing it.”

The proposed changes would allow the Fish and Boat Commission to set its own fishing license rates and the agency has indicated that it intends to hike the cost of fishing licenses for Pennsylvania anglers from $21 to $26 in the first year, followed by $2 increases in each of the following two years. The cost of an out-of-state license would go from $51 to $56 in the first year, with a $10 hike in the second year, followed by a $5 increase in the third year, according to a fiscal analysis completed by House legislative staff.

“As an independent agency that is not supported by the General Fund revenues, and relies on user fees to pay for almost everything it does, the PFBC has a vested business interest in setting a fee structure that generates sufficient revenues to sustain its work on behalf of anglers, boaters, and aquatic resources while having the least possible negative impact on participation and sales,” said state Sen. Patrick Stefano, R-Fayette County, in a memo seeking support for the Senate bill.

The proposed increases are the maximum under consideration by the agency and it’s possible the Fish and Boat Commission would opt for more modest license hikes, said Mike Parker, a spokesman for the agency.

There are sunset provisions in the proposals in both the House and Senate, meaning that after the agency does the announced price hikes, it would have no authority to enact additional price increases.

The measure also includes language that would allow the Legislature to block the agency’s proposed increases if lawmakers decided to object, Parker said.

The legislation also requires that the new fee structure be preceded by a public-comment period and that the commission discuss the plan at two separate public meetings, said state Rep. Thomas Mehaffie, R-Dauphin County, who authored the House legislation.

Metzgar said that he’s worried that the increases will be too dramatic and punish people who are too poor to afford the sport.

“We’re getting to the point where you’ll have to be fairly wealthy to afford to fish or you’ll be an outlaw because you can’t afford the license,” he said.

The Fish and Boat Commission has been lobbying for the right to increase its license prices for years. The commission’s former executive director John Arway had warned that the increases were necessary to cover rising personnel costs. Frustrated over the lack of action in the General Assembly, Arway controversially rolled out a plan in 2017 that proposed cutting costs by closing fisheries across the state if the license increases weren’t OK’d.

Arway retired last fall and Parker said that no moves to close fisheries are still in the works.

Metzgar said the standoff with Arway illustrates why the Legislature should retain all its oversight instead of relaxing it.

“We have to guard against that kind of bureaucratic over-reach,” he said.

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