Welcome to the world of politics, Missouri Department of Conservation.
As its Kansas neighbors have long known, the agency is discovering that the management of fish, wildlife and forests isn’t immune from the dealings of the state legislature.
Once, that seemed like an unlikely threat for the Department of Conservation. Missouri’s Conservation Commission was established as an autonomous, non-political entity, free of the control of the state house and senate.
When a one-eighth-cent conservation sales tax was narrowly approved by voters in 1976, Missouri’s fish and wildlife budget immediately soared to one of the largest in the nation — it is now at almost $175 million. The Department of Conservation became a national leader in research, recruitment and retention of fishermen and hunters, wildlife and habitat programs, education and much more.
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The department attracted a passionate support base, and criticism of the agency was met with a “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape” response by many.
Maybe that’s why the rift between supporters and opponents of the agency has become such a powderkeg issue this winter.
The Department of Conservation and its supporters are fighting eight significant bills introduced to the 2015 General Assembly — the most some conservation officials can remember — that could have a big impact on the way the agency operates.
It certainly isn’t the first time the Department of Conservation has been targeted by the General Assembly. But the sheer number of bills and the threats they pose to the agency sets this year apart.
One of those bills, calling for the repeal of the conservation sales tax, has already been withdrawn. But others, including three that would have a big effect on the department’s funding, remain. And that has set off a a vocal debate.
At the core of that argument: Is the state’s top conservation agency accountable for the way it is spending money? The four-member Conservation Commission currently oversees the agency, endorsing or nixing staff recommendations.
But some say that isn’t enough. That’s why legislators say they are moving in.
“When I introduced my bill (to repeal the conservation sales tax), I was crucified,” said State Rep. Craig Redmon of Canton, Mo. “People called me a conservation hater; that I was trying to bring down the conservation department.
“But that wasn’t my intent at all. I think the Department of Conservation has done a good job. Still, I wanted to open up a dialogue about the department’s accountability, and I think we accomplished that.
“This tax has no sunset or review process, and I don’t agree with that. There have to be checks and balances in place.”
That theme apparently is a trend in the Missouri General Assembly.
Though Redmon removed his bill from consideration, three other measures that could drastically affect the Department of Conservation’s funding are still being considered.
▪ One measure calls for a constitutional amendment cutting the conservation sales tax in half, from one-eighth of a cent to one-sixteenth of a cent.
▪ Another measure proposes an amendment that would require the conservation sales tax to be approved by voters every 10 years.
▪ Another bill would keep the conservation sales tax intact but would eliminate the cost for hunting, fishing and trapping permits for residents. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Brian Munzlinger, said the bill was introduced because he thinks residents are being “double-taxed.”
Other bills also would have a major impact on the Department of Conservation’s way of doing business.
▪ One bill would change the makeup of the Conservation Commission, which oversee the Department of Conservation. It would expand the size of the commission from four members to eight, one from each region.
▪ Another bill is a carryover from last year’s spirited fight over the classification of captive deer. A bill in 2014 that would have reclassified captive deer as livestock managed solely by the Missouri Department of Agriculture was narrowly defeated. Now a similar bill is being considered in the General Assembly.
▪ Other bills would require the Department of Conservation to test road-killed deer for chronic wasting disease, to reimburse automobile owners up to $500 for damages inflicted by deer-vehicle accidents and to require Conservation Commissioners to register as lobbyists upon their appointment by the governor.
Longtime supporters of the Department of Conservation such as Ron Kruger say the legislation would do nothing but harm the Department of Conservation and conservation management.
“Since the conservation tax was passed in 1976, there have been periodic attempts to wrestle control of it, but this latest barrage goes beyond that,” said Kruger, 66, who lives in Ironton, Mo. “This seems to be a concerted effort to damage or destroy the department any way they can.
“It’s a vendetta and the most serious threat to conservation I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
So, what’s at stake? Plenty, according to Department of Conservation officials.
If either the conservation sales tax, which generates about $110 million, or the sale of permits, which accounts for about $40 million, went away, many of the programs that have brought the Department of Conservation national acclaim wold be cut back or eliminated, officials say.
“There wouldn’t be a program that wouldn’t be affected,” said Aaron Jeffries, assistant director of the Department of Conservation. “There would be an impact on everything from our management programs to our shooting ranges to hatcheries.”
Steve Patchin of Belton accuses the Department of Conservation of using scare tactics.
“States like Kansas don’t have a sales tax and they still have good fishing and hunting programs, nature centers, services, using mostly the funds from permit sales,” said Patchin, a longtime hunter. “There would be some cutbacks, but I don’t think that would be such a bad thing.
“With the excess money it is receiving, the MDC has lost sight of what a conservation agency is supposed to be.
“I don’t agree with the money that is given to rural fire departments, to cities and schools, to put down gravel on rural roads.”
Though Patchin is a frequent critic of the Department of Conservation, he said he isn’t an “MDC hater.” He simply wants to see that the department rein in its spending and become more accountable to its constituency.
“When the conservation sales tax was first voted in (1976), the MDC did an excellent job doing what they were supposed to,” he said. “They actually did more, by acquiring and developing more public areas than they said they would.
“But that ship has long since sailed.”
So what do the people think? If an unscientific poll conducted last week on The Kansas City Star’s website, KansasCity.com, is any indication, the Department of Conservation still has overwhelming support.
The poll asked readers what they thought about the funding bills that would affect the Department of Conservation. Of the 2,875 respondents, 72 percent were against all of the measures, 19 percent were for all of them and 8 percent were for some.
Jeffries also points to a University of Missouri poll taken last year that showed almost two-thirds of those questioned thought the Department of Conservation was doing either an excellent or good job.
Though the Department of Conservation’s annual budget is one of the smallest of all state agencies, it generates a giant payback, supporters say. The latest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recreation survey estimated the total economic impact of Missouri’s fishing, hunting and the forest products industry at more than $12 billion annually.
Johnny and Linda Everhart of Blairstown, Mo., who are co-host of the “Missouri Outback” radio show on KDKD-FM in Clinton, Mo., label themselves as “watchdogs.”
They acknowledge that the Department of Conservation does some good for Missouri sportsmen, but they also find fault, especially with what they perceive as the department’s lack of transparency and willingness to engage the public in its decision-making.
“The main problem is power without oversight or transparency,” Linda said. “The MDC can spend our tax money on anything they please, pass regulations that hurt families and businesses … and stage public input meetings for show, and there’s no office or committee the people can turn to.”
The Everharts criticize the commission makeup, even though it was established as a non-political entity, with two members from each major political party. They complain about the commission’s lack of accessibility, saying the commissioners’ telephone numbers or email addresses aren’t included on the Department of Conservation’s websites as they are in surrounding states.
“These are our state representatives,” Johnny said. “And we don’t even know how to get in touch with them.”
That’s why the Everharts favor the bill calling for expanding the commission to eight members, one from each region.
“That would increase accountability and see that all regions of the state get represented,” Johnny said.
Anita Gorman of Kansas City, who served on the commission from 1993 to 2005, disagrees.
“It would lead to partisanship, with each commissioner looking out primarily for his or her region,” she said.
Gorman maintains that there is little reason to tamper with a successful formula.
“We have the most highly respected conservation department in the nation,” she said. “My feeling is: If it it isn’t broken, why fix it?”
Critics disagree, saying there is room for improvement.
“The MDC is an important agency that provides vital services to Missourians,” said State Rep. Bryan Spencer of Wentzville, Mo. . “But no agency should go unchecked or be allowed to overreach their boundaries.”
▪ “People are very passionate about the Missouri Department of Conservation. Emotions will run rampant and may win out over the facts.” | State rep. Bryan Spencer of Wentzville, Mo.
▪ “I detest politics, or at least what politics has become in this nation. The MDC is the only government entity I know that is free of politics. And all of these bills are attempts to bring the MDC under the dirty umbrella of political control.” | Ron Kruger, longtime hunter and fisherman from Ironton, Mo.
▪ “The list of legislation should be a wake up call to every conservationist in Missouri. We are under attack.” | Brandon Butler, director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri
▪ “I have hunted and fished in other states, and there is no comparison in what we have here in Missouri and those other states. I could not support any bill that will take revenue away from the MDC.” | John Miner, hunter from Sedalia, Mo.
▪ “The MDC absolutely needs to be held more accountable. They do what they want, when they want, with an arrogant attitude that is second to none.” | Joe Monteleone, longtime deer hunter from Liberty
▪ “Ten to 12 years ago, the MDC got on this ‘let’s pacify all of these sales-tax paying people who don’t hunt or trap so we don’t lose our tax income’ agenda. Any they have gone downhill since.” | Steve Patchin, longtime hunter from Belton