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Local News

Pa. Game Commission head discusses investing gas windfall as accountability concerns linger

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Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
June 3, 2024

The Pennsylvania Game Commission’s new executive director told lawmakers Monday a $500 million nest egg from natural gas drilling on state game lands would be invested in the state’s hunting grounds.

“When I started with the Commission back in the early 2000s, I don’t think anybody anticipated that we’d have this problem,” said Steve Smith, who was appointed by the Game Commission board last month. ”It’s a good problem to have. Probably the number one question I’ve received is what are you going to do about your money?”

With its general fund — which is independent of the overall state budget — flush with cash, the Game Commission is in a position to establish itself on a firm financial footing to ensure that hunting remains affordable and accessible to sportsmen and women for years into the future, Smith said. 

“I’d love for us to be in a position where we put together a 10-year plan essentially for spending that revenue,” Smith said, adding that the money has allowed the commission to begin improving access to game lands by building roads, bridges and culverts.

But Smith’s appearance before the state House Game and Fisheries Committee was to answer for the agency’s lax accounting and accountability practices over the last decade, detailed in a 2019 report by former Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s office. 

In the report, which made more than 40 recommendations to the commission and Legislature, DePasquale detailed the agency’s failure to properly track oil and gas revenue, opaque accounting practices that included millions of dollars kept in escrow accounts outside of the state treasury and a glut of state-owned automobiles. 

Rep. David Maloney (R-Berks) said he wants no doubts about who the commission’s money should benefit, in a reference to a controversy during last year’s budget negotiations in which a proposal circulated to transfer $150 million of the commission’s money to a fund used mostly by the state Department of Agriculture to protect waterways from agricultural runoff.

“I want to make sure that the sportsmen in Pennsylvania and my colleagues sitting here know that this is not a grab bucket of money. This is sportsmen’s funds,” Maloney said.

And he warned Smith — whom Maloney asserts was improperly named director of the agency — that he would not stand for the lack of transparency that Maloney said he experienced under former Executive Director Bryan Burhans. 

Maloney said his efforts to obtain information about spending by game commission staff who allegedly participated in a pub crawl at a February 2023 National Wild Turkey Federation conference in Tennessee were blocked.

“I’m going to tell you, it’s so troubling to me that if I find out who and who participated in that, it will be in every newspaper across the state of Pennsylvania,” Maloney said.

Burhans resigned in April after the commission board raised questions about his involvement in a “wellness” business with a number of other Game Commission employees.

Maloney last month questioned whether the commission acted ethically by appointing one of Burhans’ deputies as the agency’s new executive director and suggested that the board of commissioners violated the Sunshine Act by making the decision in a closed-door meeting.

Game Commission spokesman Travis Lau told the Capital-Star last month the board of commissioners acted properly in conducting an executive session to accept Burhans’ resignation and appoint a new director.

David J. Gustafson, director of the commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Habitat Management, said Monday that the commission has acted on the recommendations in the 2019 audit by dedicating staff to tracking gas royalties, employing software used in the energy industry to compare reported production with payments and performed field inspections to ensure gas drillers are complying with lease requirements.

It has also ceased the use of external escrow accounts, which were used to hold proceeds of resource sales to purchase property to replace wildlife habitat damaged by resource development.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.