ROBERT SWIFT: Capitol Matters: Under the gun in Harrisburg
HARRISBURG - To say that the two independent state wildlife agencies were under the political gun last week would be an understatement.
The Game Commission reversed course on some key personnel decisions in order to meet an unusual demand from Gov. Tom Corbett and top legislative leaders.
The governor and leaders sent a letter calling on the game commission members to immediately resign if they didn't want to revoke a $220,000 severance agreement with a former commission executive director and withdraw the name of another top official facing an ethics investigation for consideration as the next executive director. That official, William Capouillez, director of the bureau of wildlife management, is under scrutiny for outside work he did negotiating oil and gas leases for private landowners with companies he dealt with as a commission employee.
The game commission quickly agreed to the above demands perhaps spurred by this paragraph in the letter:
"If individually or collectively, you and your fellow Commissioners are unable to appreciate the prudence of fostering the above course of action, or you are otherwise inclined to refuse the above recommendations, alternatively, we request that you immediately resign your appointment to the Board of Commissioners."
At week's end, Mr. Corbett signed a law reducing the length of terms for members of the state Fish and Boat Commission from eight years to four years following a final vote from House lawmakers.
Reducing the terms will make the fish and boat commissioners more accountable to the public, said the bill sponsor Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-122, Lower Towamensing Twp.
"The Fish and Boat Commission has considerable regulatory powers and this bill would provide much needed oversight," he added.
The Senate gave final approval to a companion bill for a similar reduction in the length of terms for game commission members and it's on the governor's desk.
A legislative research agency released a report saying the merger of the game and fish and boat commissions would save state taxpayers nearly $5 million annually with the elimination of 52 staff positions.
These events point to an uncertain future for the two agencies. Pennsylvania is the only state where fish and wildlife resources are administered by separate agencies, noted the report by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee.
All this takes place as controversial legislation to curb the independence of the two commissions in designating endangered species is before the House and Senate. The legislation would require the commissions to submit proposed species designations to the Independent Regulatory Review Commission and respective legislative committees for review.
Debate over this bill has pitted environmentalists against industry trade groups. Environmentalists say the additional layer of bureaucratic review would remove science from the designation process while the trade groups say a review is needed for a better balance between species protection and economic development.
It's uncertain whether either chamber will vote on the endangered species bill during an election year.
ROBERT SWIFT is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers, of which The Daily/Sunday Review is a part.