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Chapter XXIV.

Attacks On And Defense of the Fish Commission

Fast Becoming a Powerful Political Factor - Enormous Fund Which It Expends Practically Without Check. - Legislative Investigation Blocked - Scheme to Give Commissioners Salary Fails.

Without the general public realizing just what is going on, the machine is, in the State Fish and Game Commission, building up an adjunct which seems destined to play an important part in any fight that may be carried on by the independent electors to break the machine's strangle-hold upon the State. Naturally the machine element in the Legislature was prepared always to rally to the defense of the Commission, and the defense was necessary, for the Commission is vulnerable, and was attacked at many points.

The Commission is perhaps the most extraordinary institution in the State. At its head is General George Stone, one-time chairman of the Republican State Central Committee. At its tail is Jake Steppacher, another one-time potent politician who has passed the days of his usefulness. Between Stone at the lead and Steppacher at the tail, is an astonishing array of formerly prominent politicians, as well as politicians who are decidedly in the present. In fact, the Fish and Game Commission is fast becoming one of the most potent adjuncts to the State political machine, that strictly non-partisan organization which guards the interests of the tenderloin, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, the racetrack gamblers, their associates and allies, and which rather presumptuously assumes to be the Republican Party of California.

One of the features of the session of 1909 was the keen little fight of the anti-machine members of the Legislature to restore the Fish and Game Commission to its one-time simplicity, legitimacy and usefulness, and the efforts of the machine members to prevent this.

Up to two years ago, under the name of Fish Commission, the now Fish and Game Commission did most admirable work on an allowance of about $50,000. So far as the writer can ascertain, the Commission's income up to 1907 never exceeded $54,000 in any one year; usually it was a trifle under $50,000.

But in 1907 a tax of $1 a year was imposed upon all citizens of California who wished to go hunting. Citizens of other States, wishing to hunt in California, are under the same law taxed $10 a year, while foreigners are taxed $25. The law provides that the income thus raised be turned over to the Fish Commission.

The first year that the law was in force, the Commission received $116,579 on account of it. This, with moneys received from State appropriations, fines collected and the like, swelled the Commission's income for that year, the fiscal year ending June 30, 1908, to $184,467.70, an increase of more that $130,000 from the previous fiscal year.

For the fiscal year ending June 30, 1908, the cost of conducting the Governor's office, including the Governor's salary, the salaries of his secretaries and clerks, stationery, postage stamps, secret service, everything in a word in connection with the office, was $32,377.

In the same way the expense of conducting the State Controller's office was $23,417; of the State Treasurer's office, $16,751 ; of the Attorney General's office, $33,082; of the Surveyor General's office, $20,679; of the State Superintendent of Schools' office, $22,380.

But the General Stone captained - or perhaps generaled - Fish Commission had for that year a modest bit of $184,467. The Fish Commission then, for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1908, cost California almost six times as much as did the Governor's office, eight times as much as did the Controller's office, eleven times as much as did the State Treasurer's office, almost six times as much as did the Attorney General's office, more than nine times as much as the Surveyor General's office, and eight times as much as did the State Department of Public Instruction. And let it be borne in mind that this does not include the sums which the various counties paid for game wardens and for local protection of game, the best protection, by the way, and the most practical.

The $184,467, did not go to the counties. It went exclusively to General Stone's Commission. It will be seen that General Stone's Commission has a very good thing of it.

Another surprising feature of the Stone-Generaled Commission is that there is little check upon its expenditures. If the Governor wishes to raise the salary of his secretary or one of his stenographers he must appeal to the Legislature for permission. The State Controller, the State Treasurer, the Secretary of State, the State superintendent of Schools, and so on down the list Of State officials, are powerless to increase the salary of an assistant or of a clerk, or of an office boy, without legislative sanction.

But not so General Stone's Commission. The Commission is left to do pretty much as it pleases with its income. So, recently, without saying a word to anybody, it increased the salary of one of its deputies (Vogelsang) from $200 to $300 a month. Three hundred dollars a month is $3600 a year. Up to this year the salary of the State Controller, of the Secretary of State, of the State Treasurer, of the Surveyor General, of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, etc., was only $3,000 a year. So it will be seen that one of General Stone's Deputies was drawing $600 a year more salary from the State than the elected State officials.

Jake Steppacher and other politicians, finding easy berths in the Commission, were also granted generous salary increases.

But in ways other than generous increase in the salaries of its deputies has the Fish Commission shown its kingly independence. The law provides that each State official and Commission shall, biennially, in the September before the Legislature convenes, file with the Governor a report of its activities and expenditures. This enables the Governor to make such recommendations as he may deem necessary in his message to the Legislature. The Controller, Attorney General, in fact all the State officials and departments, observed the law last September with but one exception. The Fish Commission, costing the State from six to eleven times more money that the State departments, did not file a report with the Governor.

The fact that the Commission had filed no report in September, the generous increase in salaries of its deputies, alleged instances of arbitrary conduct of its representatives, resulted in a resolution being introduced by Assemblyman Harry Polsley, demanding that the Commission be made the subject of legislative inquiry.

The resolution was referred to the Assembly Committee on Fish and Game, a committee notoriously in sympathy with the Commission. The Committee held a sort of preliminary hearing which resulted in a general whitewashing[100]. Polsley made out what was generally regarded as a prima facie case against the Commission, but the Committee did not choose to consider it such, and so the investigation got no further[100a].

But it was noticeable after the "preliminary hearing" that the advocates of the Fish Commission measures did not show up so sprightly confident of their passage as before. Polsley's efforts were by no means lost. Many measures intended to strengthen the already gigantically strong Commission failed of passage, or had their viciousness amended out of them, which, had it not been for Polsley's efforts, might have become laws.

The most important of these was Senate Bill 741. The measure as originally introduced by Senator Willis provided that "every person in the State of California, who hunts, pursues or kills any of the wild birds or animals, excepting predatory birds or animals, or fishes for or catches with hook and line any of the protected fish of this State, without first procuring a license therefor, as provided in this Act, is guilty of a misdemeanor."

Had the act become a law as introduced, not only those who hunt, but those who fish, would have been obliged to pay one dollar for a license. Thus, if a family of father, mother and three children wanted to go fishing, they would first have had to pay five dollars for the privilege.

The writer has it from a gentleman who has made careful study of the Fish Commission and its ways that the licensing of amateur fishers would have increased the income of the Fish and Game Commission $150,000 a year. This, with the income already enjoyed by the Commission of $184,000 a year, would have swelled its annual income to more than $330,000. This sum is $90,000 more than it cost to maintain the Stockton Hospital for the Insane for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1908; $125,000 more than the maintenance of the Agnews Asylum for that year; $122,000 more than the cost of the maintenance of the Folsom State Prison. The Fish and Game Commission was scarcely modest in its demands[101].

Naturally, the backers of the Fish and Game Commission made a hard fight for the measure's passage. But in spite of their efforts they could not edge it through the Senate until March 3d. In the Assembly, the measure met genuine opposition.

The Assembly Committee on Fish and Game of course recommended it for passage, and on March 15th, after a hot fight, it actually passed the Assembly. But Cattell gave notice of reconsideration. Incidentally, Governor Gillett let it be known that he would veto any measure that required amateur fishermen to pay license. This was a damper upon the Fish Commission crowd. When Cattell called the bill up for reconsideration it was reconsidered and defeated. However, Leeds accepted an amendment which struck out the clause which provided that amateur fishermen must pay a license tax. On Leeds' motion the next day, the amended bill was reconsidered and passed.

The three Fish and Game Commissioners serve without salary. Their compensation comes from the pleasure of disbursing upwards of $200,000 a year, what political prestige there may be in it, and rather generous expense money[102]. But a bill was introduced to give each Commissioner a salary of $3,000 a year. The measure did not become law, for which the writer believes much credit is due Assemblymen Polsley of Red Bluff. The State was thus saved $9,000 a year. General Stone and his associates are just that amount out of pocket. They have, however, given no indication of resigning their offices because the salary has been denied them.

But if the Fish and Game Commission was unsuccessful in increasing its revenue and putting through other measures from the standpoint of its members advantageous, its opponents were quite as unsuccessful in their attacks upon the Commission. Like the panther cat that guards her young, the agents of the Commission fought to retain the advantages which they had secured in 1907, and were generally successful.

The chief of the attacks was that of Assemblyman Polsley, author of Assembly Bill 433. This bill wasn't very long, contained less than five lines, in fact, and just forty-three words, but its passage would have saved the people of California more than $100,000 a year, or almost as much as it costs the State to run the Governor's office, the Controller's office, the State Treasurer's office and the office of State Superintendent of Schools combined. Assembly Bill 433 repealed the law of 1907, under which hunters are required to pay the Fish and Game Commission for the privilege of going hunting. The bill was introduced January 15th. It was referred to the notorious Assembly Committee on Fish and Game. There it was held until March 10th. It was then referred back to the Assembly with the recommendation that it "do not pass." That settled Assembly Bill 433.

Another measure which caused the agents of the Fish Commission much worry was introduced in the Assembly by Preston and in the Senate by Sanford. This bill provided that $50,000 should be paid out of the Fish and Game Commission fund each year to be used in paying bounties for exterminating coyotes. This would have left the Commission only about $130,000 a year. Naturally, the agents of the Commission resented the raid on their funds. The measure was referred to the Assembly Committee on Fish and Game. This was on January 18th. And it never was heard of after.

The companion Senate measure, introduced by Sanford, got further, but not much. The Senate Committee reported it "without recommendation." But even so, it passed second reading and went to engrossment and third reading. There it languished. On March 18th it was withdrawn by its author.

Another measure which gave the Commissioners a deal of worry was one introduced by Johnson of Placer, which provided that to each hunter who took fifty blue jay heads to the County's Clerk's office should be issued a hunter's license free. It was thought that this would encourage boys to kill blue jays for the hunter's license prize, value one dollar. But General Stone could not see it that way.

"If this bill becomes a law," said General Stone, "we shall have to retrench somewhere."

The bill didn't become a law, and the Fish and Game Commission was saved.

But the most "unkindest cut of all" came when the Assembly attempted to break into that sacred Fish and Game Commission fund by way of resolution. The Assembly actually adopted a resolution calling for a Commission to be appointed by the Governor for the purpose of ascertaining the feasibility of dividing the State into game districts, and generously providing $5,000 out of the Fish Commission fund for that purpose. Naturally the agents of the Fish Commission were scandalized at this proposed reckless expenditure of moneys from their fund by somebody else. But they were powerless. The resolution went through.

Rather late in the session the Assembly discovered that under the law it cannot "resolute" money out of any fund other than the Assembly contingent fund. The resolution was not, therefore, worth the paper it was printed on. Once again the sacred Fish Commission fund was saved.

But the Assembly could switch money out of the fund by legislative enactment, and a bill covering the same ground as the resolution was introduced without delay.

The measure passed the Assembly but did not reach the Senate until March 22d, two days before adjournment. That was very late for such a measure, but a heroic effort was made to secure its passage.

On Estudillo's motion, an attempt was made to suspend the State Constitution, declare the bill a matter of special urgency, and pass it forthwith. But the motion failed. Again did the Fish Commission escape a raid on its fund.

Senator Walker and Assemblyman Rutherford introduced measures providing for a distribution of the fund with counties, which at any rate looked pretty good to the counties, although the agents of the Fish Commission were not pleased at all.

The bills provided that one-half of the moneys collected from the sale of hunters' licenses, and on account of fines for infringement of the State game laws, should be paid to the counties in which collected, and the balance go to the Fish Commission fund.

Walker's bill was introduced on January 8th. It went to the Senate Committee on Fish and Game and was never heard of after.

Rutherford's bill was introduced on January 15th. It went to the Assembly Committee on Fish and Game. Like the Walker bill, the Rutherford bill was lost in committee oblivion.

Such, from the standpoint of the more important bills to increase and to decrease the Fish Commission fund, was the record of fish and game legislation. The Fish and Game Commission - and its overgrown fund - is still with us. But it might have been infinitely worse. Bad little boys who play hookey from Sunday-school to go fishing, for example, might have - in addition to the other frightful penalties imposed on them - been compelled to pay a license tax of $1 for the privilege.

[100] That the Fish and Game Committee would whitewash the Commission was recognized from the first. Even members of the machine who stand for genuine game protection objected to this committee making the investigation. When the motion was made to refer the resolution to this committee, Assemblyman Greer of Sacramento, took the floor to protest:

"It is useless to refer the matter to the Committee on Fish and Game," said Greer, "for we all know what that committee will do. We'll get no action there. Let it go to some committee that will give it consideration."

[100a] The Fish and Game Commission was very bitter against Polsley and all who approved his course. Because of the incident, Game Warden Welch of Santa Cruz County lost his position. Welch was a county official, paid by the county. The Commission complained that he had written a letter to Polsley commending the Assemblyman for his effort to secure a report 'from the Commission. Santa Cruz County receives a monthly stipend from the Commission toward the support of the Brookdale hatchery. The writer is reliably informed that one of the Commissioners stated that the Commission would do nothing for Santa Cruz County so long as "that man Welch" remained in office. Welch was removed by the Supervisors. Welch has a national-wide reputation as a game warden, and such papers as the "Forest and Stream," New York, and "Sports Afield," Chicago, have joined the California press in denunciation of his dismissal.

As these pages are going through the press, word comes from Santa Cruz that Welch has been reinstated by Judge Lucas F. Smith of the Superior Court of Santa Cruz County.

In summarizing his findings, Judge Smith holds that the local Board of Supervisors exceeded its legal power in declaring vacant the office of voluntary warden, which Welch held; exceeded its legal authority in removing Welch without specific charges being prepared, notice served on him and an opportunity given for a hearing.

[101] All sorts of estimates have been made of the income that would have been enjoyed by the Fish and Game Commission, had this bill become a law. The lowest that the writer knows of, made by a disinterested person, places the increase at $50,000 a year.

[102] Some of the commission's expense accounts on file with the State Controller are curiosities. For example, General Stone when he is on commission business taxes the fund $1 for breakfast, $1 for lunch, $1 for dinner. It thus costs the Commission three annual hunter's licenses to feed General Stone for a day.

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