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Legislators lambaste Game Commission over transparency, paper checks

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(The Center Square) – After months of criticism, House legislators grilled leaders of the Pennsylvania Game Commission over the independent agency’s internal processes, stewardship of its assets, and whether improvement has been made since an audit revealed a litany of issues in 2019.

“I’ve been disturbed by the internal processes that have gotten us to this point,” Rep. Joe Hohenstein, D-Philadelphia, said during a House Game and Fisheries Committee hearing on Monday. “I’ll tell you that, in my three-plus years on this committee, the Game Commission hasn’t impressed me with its internal procedures or how they communicate with us – they need to do better.”

The Game Commission has faced weeks of criticism since former Executive Director Bryan Burhans resigned after his business relationships with several Game Commission employees came to light. Burhans was working as a wellness coach, which was revealed after state legislators noticed he had a website for a personal consulting business.

In February, Burhans also faced criticism for the commission hiring a $10,000-per-month lobbyist – something no state agency had done since 2007. After Burhans’ resignation, Rep. David Maloney, R-Boyertown, called for a “reckoning” of the commission to reprioritize hunters and make the commission more accountable and transparent.

Steve Smith, Game Commission executive director since May, said better communication was his top priority.

“There needs to be more transparency and there needs to be more communication,” Smith said. “I’m completely committed to that. I’ve asked the (committee) chairs to hold me accountable. We want to repair that relationship between the commission and the Legislature.”

Repairing the relationship may be difficult. The 2019 audit by the Pennsylvania auditor general made dozens of recommendations from changing budget calculations to better overset of funds to changing agency practices and policies. Beyond that audit (which was not a focus of any hearing until Monday), issues like Sunday hunting and land expansions have alienated lawmakers and prompted severe criticism from the public.

Game Commission leaders noted the strides they made to better-track royalty payments from leases for natural gas exploitation, which has brought in almost $80 million in the last fiscal year. However, that money was well-below initial estimates of $130 million, which officials blamed on lower gas prices than anticipated.

How the Game Commission handled royalties, however, left legislators perplexed. Royalty checks still come into the agency as paper rather than digital deposits.

“You’re still using physical checks that causes a delay, (it’s) possible checks get lost in the mail or not deposited in a timely fashion,” said Rep. Jim Haddock, D-Hughestown. “So you can’t even get the Game Commission to do a direct deposit.”

But officials said paper is better.

“Our stance is we prefer the paper copy for accounting purposes,” said David Gustafson, director of the bureau of wildlife habitat management. “We’re able to ensure we have backup documentation for our own internal accounting practices when we use those paper checks.”

“So you’re not good with technology,” Haddock said.

The commission’s general fund, Executive Director Smith noted, holds almost $507 million as of the end of May, and officials want to be more forward-thinking.

“I’d love for us to be in a position where we can put together a 10-year plan, essentially, for spending that revenue, investing it in wildlife and wildlife habitat, doing some of those things I talked about,” he said.

“We would need a whole day for everyone to sit and really do a thorough questioning,” said Rep. Anita Astorino Kulik, D-Coraopolis and committee chairwoman. “These conversations will continue. I’m all about fiscal responsibility, I don’t want to see every penny spent without thought.”

Maloney, the Republican chairman of the committee, warned officials of a toxic work environment within the Game Commission that needs reformed and lamented a lack of responsiveness when transparency and accountability issues were raised.

He called the Pennsylvania Game Commission a “great agency that I think has got off the tracks.”

“If you can’t be transparent, then this meeting is worthless,” Maloney said. “It’s about time we have a light shined on an agency that should be providing for the sportsmen.”

For the future, the Game Commission could take its cues from another agency, he noted.

“I can’t get past a day without getting an email or phone call from somebody across Pennsylvania having to do with issues within the agency,” Maloney said. “I don’t get that with the Fish & Boat Commission – and quite frankly, if I do, it gets resolved.”

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