Missouri hunters worry about bill to give lawmakers greater power over rules

“Trouble for Conservation Brewing in Missouri Legislature,” read the online message. It struck a worried, angry tone typical of recent reactions from many hunting and wildlife groups to two new pieces of legislation proposed by Republican lawmakers.

The “trouble” is a pair of resolutions that call for a state referendum granting Missouri lawmakers the expanded right to change rules made by state agencies.

Usually lawmakers just pass the laws and let government departments decide how to implement them.

But as the national political scene has focused more on “overreaching executive power” — especially among Republicans unhappy that President Barack Obama has said he plans to use his office’s powers to go around Congress on some issues — some of that concern has cropped up in Jefferson City, too.

Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, who sponsored the House’s version, gave an example. Voters in 2008 blessed a measure requiring utilities to use more renewable energy, a requirement that couldn’t raise electric rates more than 1 percent.

But, according to Barnes, the Public Service Commission interpreted that rate limit in a way that seemed to allow utility bills to grow much faster.

That leads to the Joint Commission on Administrative Rules.

Under Barnes’ bill and with voters’ approval, this obscure commission could reject any rules that meet certain criteria, such as the rules that are outside the agency’s authority or conflict with a law’s intent.

That spooks many people who hunt and fish in Missouri.

The Missouri Department of Conservation, under a unique arrangement ingrained in the state constitution, decides how to manage the state’s fish, forests and wildlife.

Lawmakers don’t get a say on the length of deer hunting season or where fishing is permitted.

That’s up to the department’s commission, which solicits public comments and advice from its scientific team.

“I trust the biologists,” said Tom Rizzo, state chapter president for the nonprofit Quality Deer Management Association, one of several wildlife groups opposing these bills.

“Lawmakers could dismantle any rules they want.”

Barnes said his bill is not aimed at reviewing every decision made by the state conservation department.

“That’s not what this bill does,” he said Tuesday.

Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, lead sponsor of the Senate version, agreed.

“Conservation is not the purpose of this,” Schmitt said. “This is a legislative check on executive overreach.”

Schmitt said he plans to work with the conservation department to address concerns when the bill reaches the Senate, which he expected to happen next week. He said he was pleased with the state conservation department.

Aaron Jeffries, assistant director of the conservation department, said he was working with lawmakers to have the agency exempted from the bill. He said he believed the bill left the agency vulnerable to the whims of lawmakers.

“We just got caught in the cross hairs, and here we are, finding ourselves with a huge challenge,” Jeffries said.

In the late 1970s and again in the early 1980s, voters considered two similar proposals, which gave lawmakers more oversight of agency rule-making.

Both measures failed.

Barnes said he could imagine only one scenario where lawmakers would want to overrule the state conservation agency: if the agency banned hunting.

“We’d have to do something,” Barnes said. “But now, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”