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Pennsylvania Game Commission grilled about lobbyist use

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(The Center Square) — Of all the drama that the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s leader has dealt with, the biggest has been over the hunting calendar.

And, more recently, media scrutiny over taxpayer funding spent on a lobbying firm.

“It’s been interesting, this whole Saturday-Monday opener of anything I’ve dealt with in my career, it’s been the most controversial thing I’ve ever seen,” Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans said during a Senate budget hearing on Tuesday.

Deer hunting has grown in recent years, and moving the start of the deer hunting season from a Monday to a Saturday was seen by the commission as a driver of that growth. The change was a tradeoff between hunting tradition and growing license sales.

“The hunters, by and large, liked and supported the Saturday opener,” Burhans said. “Only about 27% of the hunters were against the Saturday opener — but they’re very vocal and I empathize with the challenges that it creates.”

So far, the data is positive.

“Our license sales have pretty much been stable; we’ve stopped losing our hunters and that’s a very exciting opportunity to be in,” Burhans said.

Though general hunting license sales have declined over the last decade, deer and bear licenses have climbed dramatically.

Senators also directed pointed questions toward the commission over its use of a hired lobbyist. In February, Spotlight PA reported that the state agency hired a Pittsburgh-based firm to lobby the legislature last fall — paying $10,000 per month for the services of Allegheny Strategy Partners. The firm is run by former state senator Joe Scarnati, who held a leadership position in the Senate for more than a decade.

“Can you please explain to my hunters back home how you being the only state entity to hire a lobbyist for more than $100,000 a year to lobby the state legislature is an effective use of their fees that they pay in hunting licenses?” asked Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York.

“It’s simply to help us build capacity,” Burhans said.

He argued that the hiring was necessary to make up for having a smaller staff than other agencies and saw the use of a lobbyist as helping the commission maintain the “absolutely critical” partnership it has with the legislature.

“We haven’t had a state agency or commission hire a lobbyist since 2007,” Phillips-Hill said. “I think there’s a reason why no other agency or commission has hired a lobbyist since 2007 — and I question that use.”

Legislators also wondered how effective the lobbyist was.

“He’s supposed to be your liaison to us. In the House and Senate — the people that I’ve talked to — nobody has had any contact with him,” Sen. Cris Dush, R-Brookville, said. “None of us were even aware that you had a lobbyist until a couple weeks ago,” Dush said.

Burhans argued the commission interviewed a number of firms and said they “specifically wanted a firm that could help us with relationships in the Senate.”

“Given the issues that the principle in that firm has, I really have to question whether there was — if I were in charge of due diligence, I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole,” Dush said. “We’re questioning the reason for it and I’m questioning specifically the selection process.”

A perennial divide on the adequacy of payments in lieu of taxes also flared up. Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, said the commission’s “footprint” gobbles up local tax revenues for municipalities, despite added state support.

The commission controls over 1.5 million acres of game lands and made $1.8 million in payments in lieu of taxes to localities to replace tax revenue, but they’re a contentious issues for legislators.

‘When you look at just the basic inflationary increases, the payment in lieu of taxes does not keep up with inflation,” Pittman said. “We have stepped in and subsidized the payment in lieu of taxes that you’re to pay through the gaming dollars.”

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