Years ago, Missouri conservation officials actually came close to opening their vaults.
It was 1986, and they were taking heat for a never-ending sales tax that was pumping millions into their department year after year.
In an attempt to appease critics, one conservation commissioner suggested giving residents a chance to vote on the tax sometime in the future.
In fact, the department's director said, the agency may even consider helping needier state programs if the sales tax kept providing so much money.
How times have changed.
Conservation officials now fight every attempt to tamper with the agency's money, presenting an aggressive defense that has warded off critics for years.
“If you say a word against them you're accused of being against wildlife and trails,” said Rep. Bob Johnson, a Lee's Summit Republican.
Johnson and other legislators have suggested several ways to reform the department, which still enjoys a torrent of cash while other state agencies are running dry. The tax windfall — twice what it was in 1986 — allows unchecked and often unwise spending, they say.
Some legislators have proposed that the Conservation Department share its tax revenue with other agencies, or even take over state parks from another department.
But the most frequent proposal — and the one that commissioners especially dislike — has been to let voters decide whether to renew the tax.
“I don't see how you could be a commissioner and support it,” said Stephen Bradford, a commissioner from Cape Girardeau.
Commissioners say the tax is still crucial even though they've surpassed the goals of the “Design for Conservation” plan that voters approved in 1976.
“Some have criticized us for doing more than what the Design for Conservation proposed,” Bradford said. “Why should we have to apologize for being the best department of conservation in the United States?”
But state Auditor Claire McCaskill says a vote on the tax is needed — not necessarily to take it away but to keep the department accountable.
“I am very supportive of conservation,” said McCaskill, who is running for governor. “I think having them go back every so often to check in with the voters would help their stewardship and accountability.”
The department answers only to its four commissioners, who are appointed by the governor. The agency, which gets almost its entire $160 million budget from the sales tax and hunting and fishing permits, needs no money from the state.
Critics say commissioners should be providing stronger, more objective oversight of the department.
“Trying to promote the tax, that's not their job,” said Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, a Republican from St. Elizabeth. “They should be making sure the department's accountable and doing a good job of handling those funds.”
But the commissioners are unbending in their defense of the sales tax.
“When this was raised before, our former commissioners raised $50,000 in a week to fight it,” said commissioner Anita Gorman of Kansas City.
The department has changed and grown since 1976, adding many new programs that it can't abandon now, said Howard Wood, a former commissioner from Bonne Terre.
“It's kind of like doing a free-fall parachute jump,” Wood said. “You can't just stop in the middle.”
But some people question whether the agency really needs so much money for new programs. After all, the department is working hard to find hunters and anglers to use them.
In fact, it is spending millions to recruit those new clients.
Critics say no government agency should be trying to create a need for the work it does.
“A state agency shouldn't be using taxpayers' money to perpetuate itself,” said Sen. John Cauthorn, a Mexico Republican.
Just this year, the agency spent $500,000 on TV ads designed to interest the public in conservation activities.
“Together we can keep Missouri thriving — forever,” said the 30-second spot.
The ads ran on network affiliates in Kansas City and St. Louis, some during prime-time shows. The campaign included a sponsorship of National Public Radio's “Morning Edition” program in the two cities.
The TV spots directed viewers to a conservation Web site, which asked them about their interests and encouraged them to sign up for free materials. Hits on that site increased by 200,000, the department said.
Critics called the ads extravagant.
“When I saw them advertising on TV, I thought, ‘That's a good waste of taxpayers' dollars,' ” said Rep. John Quinn, a Chillicothe Republican. “That shouldn't be the mission of a state agency.”
Conservation officials said the ads were a legitimate way to get out their message.
“Here's an opportunity for us to introduce ourselves to, we hope, a new clientele,” said Dan Witter, who just retired as the department's outreach programs chief.
The department also conducts numerous polls to help create programs, spending $30,000 a pop for surveys by The Gallup Organization in addition to scores of its own polls. One just completed with the University of Missouri cost the agency more than $155,000.
“We're talking to the citizenry, trying to find out what to do,” Witter said. “We ask the tough questions: Are we as important as we used to be?”
In some cases, the answer is no.
Conservation officials face a graying of their clientele. The average age of Missouri hunters is steadily rising, from 34 to 42 in the past decade. As a result, the agency is trying to recruit new customers.
For example, its surveys show African-Americans take part in outdoor activities at a lower rate than the white population. In June, commissioners approved $47,000 for a pilot program in St. Louis designed to recruit more black anglers.
The department also is working to attract youths — a tough task in a time when sports, big-screen TVs and video games compete for their attention.
In the mid-1990s, the agency paid an assistant professor at Southwest Missouri State University $51,000 to survey Missouri sixth- and 12th-graders about conservation. Among her findings: Boys fish more than girls, and rural students more than urban students.
Much of the recruiting focuses on schools.
The agency distributes quarterly newspapers named Woolyworm, Tadpole and Crawdad to about 250,000 kindergartners and first- and second-graders throughout the state. It held focus groups in the St. Louis area last year with middle and high school administrators to try to develop a school conservation program.
Such aggressive marketing tactics are unusual for a government agency, experts say.
“I'm trying to think of someone else who markets like this, and I have no clue,” said Burdett Loomis, chairman of the political science department at the University of Kansas. “Everybody promotes themselves a little bit … but nothing like this.”
But John Hoskins, conservation department director, defends the agency's approach.
“Marketing for us is about finding out what people want in the Department of Conservation and then providing that as a service to them because they're paying for it,” Hoskins said.
A sunset vote
For years, legislators and other critics have sought another public vote on the conservation tax.
But efforts to “sunset” the tax — in other words, bring it up regularly for a vote — have always failed.
A sunset is difficult to enact because the tax was passed as a constitutional amendment. That means either the legislature would have to put it on a ballot or the public would have to do that through a petition drive. And then state voters would have to pass the proposal to sunset the tax.
All that would have to happen before any vote on the tax itself could ever occur.
Moreover, the Conservation Department and its many allies have always been quick to attack the idea.
When Cauthorn proposed a sunset this year, the agency's defenders turned out in strength. “They come hard and heavy on you,” Cauthorn said.
At a March hearing, the president of the Conservation Federation of Missouri (CFM), Judd Kirkham, warned legislators:
“CFM has the membership and resources to successfully defend the conservation sales tax and will take whatever measures necessary to defend it.”
Joel Vance, an outdoors writer who worked for the Conservation Department for 21 years, told lawmakers that the agency would be thrown into chaos if voters were allowed to decide whether to keep the sales tax.
“Missouri's conservation program is the best funded, most envied in the nation,” he said.
The measure languished and died, which may be no surprise considering that more than half of Missouri's legislators formed the Sportsmen's Caucus in 2003. This year the Conservation Department helped with two shooting events and sponsored an evening of food and drinks to tell the caucus about the state's bobwhite quail population.
Now, however, the public is looking at the sunset issue seriously, said Leslie Holloway of the Missouri Farm Bureau, which wants a vote on the tax.
“People are starting to pay more attention to where is the funding coming from and realizing conservation is about the only program that has this dedicated funding source that has no sunset,” Holloway said.
The Department of Natural Resources has its own sales tax — a tenth of a cent that goes to state parks and soil conservation — but it comes up for a public vote every 10 years.
Cauthorn said he will probably offer his proposal again next session to require a vote every 10 years for conservation, too.
“They have a forever stream of money,” Cauthorn said. “We're in a tough time now in state government, where every dollar counts. I don't particularly want to take their money away, but I do want them to be responsible.”
In fact, some sunset supporters say they would still vote for the tax — they just want a regular chance to keep the agency more accountable to taxpayers.
Yet a renewed sunset proposal is seen as such a threat that Gorman, the commissioner from Kansas City, said conservation backers are already calling their legislators.
“That's our biggie,” she said.
Hoskins said the sunset provision would be a mistake because simply knowing that the tax regularly will come up for a vote would make the department less innovative.
“There are things that we do today that may not show success or impact for decades,” he said.
Once a sunset is on the ballot, the tax could ultimately be voted down — and that would present Missouri residents with some terrible choices, Hoskins said.
“What are you willing to do without in the way of conservation programs, services and facilities?” he said. “Or if you're not willing to give them up, how do you intend to alternatively fund them?”
The department shouldn't be afraid of a vote, said Sen. David Klindt, chairman of the Senate conservation and agriculture committee. He said his constituents would vote for the tax again if they support the department's record.
“The voters have proved over and over that if they like the way something is going, they're going to support it,” said Klindt, a Bethany Republican. “You've got to come to a point that you trust the people. It has a tendency to make you more responsive.”
In fact, McCaskill said she would probably vote for the tax again even though she wants a sunset.
“Earmarked taxes that never sunset are just not a good idea when you talk about accountability,” she said. “I just think it's a bad idea not to trust the voters.”
Besides the sunset, other conservation proposals have emerged in recent years:
Hand off some money.
A proposal last year would have given half the conservation tax money to education. It had 60 sponsors but died without a hearing.
“The Department of Conservation is the wealthiest agency in the state,” said Johnson, a co-sponsor of the proposal.
“They go out and purchase things that they don't need because they have the money so they think they have to spend it. It never dawns on these people that maybe they just ought to return some of this back to taxpayers for other purposes. Like highways.”
Although conservation officials were prepared in the 1980s to give up some of the tax money in hopes of warding off critics, they don't consider that an option today.
It wouldn't save the state any money, Hoskins said.
“The citizens would still demand the services we provide and there would have to be another way to fund them,” he said. “And that would put us into competing for the money that's needed to improve our roads and schools.”
Besides, Hoskins said, the department is comparatively small, and its sales tax money wouldn't go very far to help larger agencies such as education.
Take over state parks.
In the 1980s, commissioners offered to take over management of state parks from the Department of Natural Resources when it appeared that legislators would divert half their tax money. Neither side followed through.
In recent years, suggestions periodically have surfaced to move state parks to the Conservation Department.
Some other states combine their entire natural resources and conservation departments.
Ken Kuster, director of audits in the state auditor's office, said some Missouri state parks illustrate the confusion of two departments.
“You've got DNR doing the lodging and the concessionaires and stuff, and then you've got conservation in there running the trout parks,” Kuster said.
“There's got to be some duplication there.”
At a minimum, he said, the state parks and historical sites could be put under the Conservation Department. The DNR could still regulate landfills and water and sewer systems.
Gorman said such a move would hurt conservation because no proposal has ever included any extra money for the parks. “Clearly that's not something we want,” she said.
Restrict land purchases.
Several times in the past decade, including last year, lawmakers have proposed measures requiring that new land purchases by the conservation commission be approved by the legislature.
“It could get to the point, if they just keep purchasing land, that it's going to take all of their money just to take care of the land, and we want to be careful that that doesn't occur,” Klindt said.
The Missouri Farm Bureau supports the measure.
“The overall concern is that property should be kept in private hands as much as possible,” Holloway said.
Hoskins said the department already has cut back on its land purchases. “Our focus today is on taking care of what we have,” he said.
Expand the commission.
Secretary of State Matt Blunt, McCaskill's Republican opponent in the governor's race, wants to expand the commission from four to six members to add more geographic diversity.
“With such a small number (of commissioners), it is difficult to ensure adequate representation and input for all regions of the state,” he said, noting that two of the current members are from metropolitan areas.
Although an expansion would not automatically save money, some say it would increase accountability.
But current commissioners said expanding the panel would make it too political.
“If you start choosing additional people based on their geographical area, you run the risk of commissioners becoming much more parochial,” Bradford said.
Gorman puts it more simply:
“The dumbest idea I've ever heard of.”
To reach Judy Thomas, call (816) 234-4334 or send e-mail to email@example.com.
John D. Hoskins became director of the Missouri Department of Conservation on July 1, 2002, after rising through the ranks of the agency. Hoskins, 50, started with the department in 1977 and has worked as a conservation agent, regional protection supervisor, chief of general services and protection division administrator.
He has a bachelor's degree in education from Southeast Missouri State University and a master's degree in public administration from the University of Missouri.
Hoskins, who lives in Jefferson City, is the department's seventh director since the agency was formed in 1937.
“Conservation in this state is an institution, a system that I think has served the citizens of this state very well," Hoskins said. "Are there flaws? Have we made some mistakes? Sure. But on the whole, I believe it's a wonderful program.”