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Our Opinion: Game Commission short-sighted

Hunters’ disgust in response to news about the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s financial condition was predictable.

Keystone State sportsmen rightly expect that agencies that exist to look out for — and protect — their best interests should be transparent.

However, the financial transparency that the commission has been meting out to sportsmen and the general public, is, in the eyes of many hunters — rightly or wrongly – caked with thick mud on what presumably was once a clean window.

The commission argues that its financial information always is available on its website and that the amount of money in its coffers has been no secret.

Nevertheless, how and why some questionable financial issues have evolved needs to be investigated. Beyond that, a determination needs to be made about the person or people responsible.

And, even beyond that, people at the highest levels of state government need to evaluate whether some of the people entrusted with managing the commission and its functions should be in those positions.

Actually, information about the commission’s finances, contained in an audit report from the state Auditor General’s Office covering the years 2014 through 2017, while upbeat in terms of money amounts, is, in the eyes of some hunters, a terrible blot on the principle of fiscal responsibility, as well as an embarrassment to the commonwealth.

According to the Altoona Mirror, the audit report, released on May 30, faulted the commission for sitting on a huge and growing pile of cash, totaling nearly $73 million in 2018, that the commission has been accused of failing to take into account when developing its annual budget.

As troubling — some hunters might say more troubling — is the fact the audit found an additional $6.5 million in various escrow accounts about which the commission’s own financial officer did not have important information when he was interviewed by auditors.

The commission argues that officer had only recently been appointed to his position at the time of the interview and was not yet fully up to speed about those accounts.

That important detail should have been clarified in the audit report.

Additionally, the audit determined that checks sometimes weren’t deposited for weeks — in one case for 63 days — and that the commission failed to ensure that energy companies paid what they truly owed in royalties from oil and gas production on state hunting lands.

Essentially, the commission was relying on the oil and gas drillers to tell them how much money they owed, and that was unacceptable regarding such an important revenue source.

During the audit process, auditors examined royalty payments from 18 of the 66 energy companies that extracted gas from state game lands during the audit period.

The audit produced 40 recommendations, all of which should be implemented.

For hunters, already at odds with the commission over its handling of the chronic wasting disease problem that’s growing in the deer population, the audit results are seen as another reason why the commission needs intense scrutiny.

The audit confirmed that the commission has money that could be devoted to CWD research aimed at developing a vaccine, but such a decision also rests with the governor’s office.

Whether the commission can be described accurately as being “broken” in any way is a matter for debate. What isn’t a matter for debate is that some of its workings and controls need to change.

Progress reports are necessary.

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