Legislative bills could reduce Missouri Department of Conservation budget

The Missouri Department of Conservation is concerned with two legislative measures that could affect its budget and the way it manages the state’s fish, wildlife and forests.
The Missouri Department of Conservation is concerned with two legislative measures that could affect its budget and the way it manages the state’s fish, wildlife and forests. The Kansas City Star

The Missouri Department of Conservation will enter the new year facing a potential funding crisis.

The agency, one of the best-supported conservation departments in the nation thanks to a dedicated sales tax and the sale of permits, is dealing with two legislative measures that would have far-reaching effects on its budget and could drastically affect the way it manages Missouri’s fish, wildlife and forests.

A bill pre-filed in the Missouri House calls on voters to decide whether to eliminate the conservation sales tax, which provides the Department of Conservation with almost $100 million annually.

Another bill pre-filed in the Missouri Senate takes a different tack, calling for the elimination of the sale of fishing, hunting and other permits to Missouri residents because they are already paying their way through the conservation sales tax.

With the legislative session set to open in early January, the Department of Conservation is concerned about the threat these bills pose to its annual budget of about $190 million.

“We’re definitely viewing this as a serious threat,” said Aaron Jeffries, assistant director of the agency. “These bills have the potential to eliminate a large percentage of our funding.

“It would certainly change the way we do things. Every program we have would be affected.”

This isn’t the first time the Department of Conservation’s rich budget has been challenged in the Missouri Legislature. In fact, Jeffries said, there is some type of bill introduced almost every year that would siphon money from the agency’s budget. Those measures have all failed.

But the last legislative session indicated that the tide may be changing. The legislature went against the Department of Conservation when it passed bills that would reclassify captive deer as livestock, not wildlife, and put their sole management under the Department of Agriculture. It took a veto by Gov. Jay Nixon for that measure to be defeated.

Now, there are new concerns.

One of the bills isn’t as ominous as it sounds, according to sponsors. State Rep. Craig Redmon, a Republican from Canton, who introduced the House bill, said it wasn’t his intent to shred the Department of Conservation’s funding. Rather, the legislation was filed as a way to make the agency more accountable.

“I don’t think this should be viewed as a slap in the face to the Conservation Department,” Redmon said. “Personally, I think they are doing a good job. They get audits, and they get good reports.

“But I don’t think anything should be open-ended like the conservation sales tax is. There needs to be a sunset or a regular review.

“Government needs to have checks and balances.”

Redmon said the wording on the bill was a bit harsher than he had intended, saying he was “in a hurry” in pre-filing the legislation. “But it’s my experience that few of these bills are passed as originally written,” he said.

Still, Department of Conservation officials are concerned that the bill, as written, poses a big threat.

They are opposed to a review or sunset, saying Missouri residents voted to institute the tax in 1976 and there is no need to change it. They point to a recently released survey that shows they still have overwhelming support from Missourians.

The survey, conducted in 2013 by the University of Missouri, indicated that almost two-thirds of residents polled rated the Department of Conservation’s job performance as “excellent” or “good.”

Three-quarters of those surveyed agreed that “the Department of Conservation is a name I can trust.”

The agency’s funding definitely makes it one of the rich kids on the block. In contrast, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism has operated with a budget of less than half of Missouri’s in recent years.

But Kansas is reliant on state funding, license sales and federal grants. The Department of Conservation gets no general funding, but has its conservation sales tax to provide the majority of its funding.

Though the Department of Conservation has critics, many say it is putting its funding to good use. It is recognized as one of the nation’s leaders in fish and wildlife management programs. It sets the pace for the recruitment and retention of hunters, non-game programs, and fishing management.

Redmon sees a different side, though.

“The people in urban areas generally have expressed that they don’t want the conservation sales tax changed,” he said. “But I’ve heard negative comments from people in rural areas.

“There definitely has been some support for the bill.”

State Sen. Brian Munzlinger, a Republican from Williamstown, who pre-filed the senate bill that would eliminate Missouri residents from being charged for fishing, hunting and other permits, also sees need for change. He said it is unfair that Missourians have to pay both the conservation sales tax and the fees for resident permits.

Though he was unavailable for comment, he recently told MissouriNet.com, “You would still have out-of-state residents that would have to pay, but it would allow Missouri residents to not have to pay twice for what they’ve already paid for.”

Department of Conservation officials argue that Missouri’s resident hunting and fishing license fees are among the most reasonable in the region, and they’ve received few complains about their cost.

If the agency’s funding were slashed, they say, it could result in the closure of fish hatcheries, shooting ranges and nature centers, a significant reduction in fish stockings, a cutback of fish and wildlife research projects and many other cost-reducing moves.

“The Department of Conservation is an economic engine for Missouri,” Jeffries said. “If we lost a lot of our funding, it would affect more than just the department.

“It would have far-reaching effects.”

To reach outdoors editor Brent Frazee, call 816-234-4319 or send email to bfrazee@kcstar.com.