Lawmakers slam Game Commission over transparency, paper checks | News, sports, jobs

Steve Smith, executive director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, testifies during a House Game & Fisheries Committee hearing on June 3, 2024.

After months of criticism, House lawmakers questioned Pennsylvania Game Commission leaders about the independent agency’s internal processes, its management of its assets and whether improvements have been made since a 2019 audit a litany of brought problems to light.

“I am disturbed by the internal processes that have brought us to this point,” Rep. Joe Hohenstein, D-Philadelphia, said Monday during a House Game and Fisheries Committee hearing. “I will tell you that in the three-plus years that I have been on this committee, the Gaming Commission has not impressed me with its internal procedures or the way they communicate with us – they have 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 were exposed. Burhans worked as a wellness coach, which was revealed after state lawmakers noticed he had a website for a personal counseling firm.

In February, Burhans was also criticized for hiring a $10,000-a-month lobbyist — something no government agency had done since 2007. After Burhans resigned, Rep. David Maloney, R-Boyertown, called for one “settlement” of the commission to review the priority of hunters and make the commission more accountable and transparent.

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

“There needs to be more transparency and there needs to be more communication,” said Smith. “I am fully committed to that. I have asked the (committee) chairmen to hold me accountable. We want to restore that relationship between the commission and the Legislature.”

It can be difficult to repair the relationship. The 2019 audit by Pennsylvania’s auditor general made dozens of recommendations, from changing budget calculations to better spending of funds to changing agency practices and policies.

Beyond that audit (which was not a subject of the hearing until Monday), issues such as Sunday hunting and land expansions have alienated lawmakers and drawn severe criticism from the public.

Game Commission leaders noted that they have made progress to better track royalty payments from natural gas exploitation leases, which generated nearly $80 million last fiscal year. However, that money was well below the initial estimate of $130 million, which officials blamed on lower than expected gas prices.

However, the Gaming Commission’s handling of royalties left lawmakers perplexed. Royalty checks still arrive at the agency as paper rather than digital deposits.

“You are still using physical checks which are causing delays. Checks may be lost in the mail or not deposited on time,” said Rep. Jim Haddock, D-Hughestown. “So you can’t even get the Gaming Commission to do a direct deposit.”

But officials said paper is better.

“Our position is that for accounting purposes we prefer the paper copy,” said David Gustafson, director of the wildlife habitat management agency. “We can ensure that we have backup documentation for our own internal accounting practices if we use those paper checks.”

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

Executive Director Smith noted that the commission’s general fund contains nearly $507 million at the end of May, and officials want to be more progressive.

“I’d like to see us 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, and doing some of those things where I was talking about,” he said.

“We would need a whole day before everyone could sit down and really do a thorough debriefing.” said Rep. Anita Astorino Kulik, D-Coraopolis and committee chair. “These conversations will continue. For me it’s about fiscal responsibility, I don’t want every cent to be spent without a second thought.”

Maloney, the committee’s Republican chairman, warned officials of a toxic work environment within the Gaming Commission that needs reform and lamented a lack of responsiveness when transparency and accountability issues arose.

He singled out the Pennsylvania Game Commission as one “great agency that I think has gone off the rails.”

‘If you can’t be transparent, this meeting is worthless’ said Maloney. “It’s time we shine a light on an agency that should be taking care of athletes.”

Going forward, the Gaming Commission could take cues from another agency, he noted.

“I can’t go a day without getting an email or phone call from someone in Pennsylvania dealing with issues within the agency,” said Maloney. “I don’t understand that at the Fish & Boat Commission – and honestly, if I do, it will be resolved.”

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