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Pa. Game Commission won’t renew controversial contract with lobbying firm run by former top lawmaker

by Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA |

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee question officials from the PA Game Commission at a budget hearing.
Courtesy Office of state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill

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HARRISBURG — Facing scrutiny from state lawmakers, the Pennsylvania Game Commission said it will not renew a controversial contract it signed late last year with a politically connected lobbying firm.

Spotlight PA revealed the existence of the agency’s contract with Allegheny Strategy Partners, a lobbying firm run by former state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, in February. The commission defended the agreement as an effort to help it improve its relationship with the legislature.

In a letter to several Republican senators this week, the commission’s executive director, Bryan Burhans, said he decided to end the contract after fielding questions and concerns from lawmakers during a recent budget hearing about the propriety of a state agency using public dollars on private lobbyists.

“While the intent of that agreement was to enhance the Game Commission’s relationships with members of the General Assembly, I acknowledge and take seriously the reservations you expressed about the appropriateness of using funding for this purpose,” Burhans wrote.

Under the agreement, which was signed last fall, the Game Commission is paying Allegheny Partners $10,000 a month for “government relations services.” The contract provides no details about the exact work the firm does on behalf of the agency.

The lobbying contract runs through the start of April, but the agency will not renew it, commission spokesperson Travis Lau said.

“The whole purpose for partnering with ASP [Allegheny Strategy Partners] was to strengthen our relationships with members of the General Assembly, but it seemed to be having the reverse effect, as several legislators expressed concerns,” Lau wrote in an email. “With that being the case, it wouldn’t make sense for us to continue.”

Neither Scarnati nor another partner in Allegheny Strategy Partners responded to a request for comment.

It is unusual for government agencies to hire private lobbying firms.

Though some Pennsylvania cities and regional authorities that rely on state aid have paid lobbyists to help them garner financial and other support, it is rare among commonwealth agencies. A search of lobbying records showed only one other state agency has hired lobbyists since 2007, the year Pennsylvania launched its lobbying disclosure website.

The Game Commission also already has a person on staff who is paid an annual salary of $105,507 to liaise with the state legislature. And unlike local governments and authorities, the agency isn’t funded through state coffers. Instead, most of its annual revenue comes from hunting and furtaker license sales.

At a late February budget hearing in the Capitol, the state Senate Appropriations Committee questioned Burhans about the lobbying contract.

“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 for the year to lobby state legislators is an effective use of their fees that they pay in hunting licenses?” asked state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R., York).

Burhans said that working with the state legislature was “critical,” a response Phillips-Hill questioned.

In the last legislative session, Phillips-Hill introduced a bill that would ban state agencies from hiring private lobbying firms, but it was not brought up for a vote. After being told by Spotlight PA that the Game Commission had contracted with Allegheny Strategy Partners, Phillips-Hill said she would reintroduce the bill; her office said the legislation was introduced this week, though the text was not available online as of March 7.

On Wednesday, Phillips-Hill called the Game Commission’s decision to stop using private lobbyists “a step in the right direction.”

“Paying outside lobbyists is a practice that should not occur with hard-earned tax dollars, or in this case hunting fees, in state government,” she said. “I will seek to end this practice once and for all with Senate Bill 1098.”

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