For a number of years there has been resentment between some legislators and the Conservation Department and most of the problems seem centered around the Department’s constitutional authority and their claim they are completely independent of all state government. Let’s look at some history.
It was in 1935 when a group of sportsmen met in Columbia with the desire to create a conservation department. They used the ballot petition initiative process to create a constitutional amendment whereby there would be something permanent in Missouri’s Constitution that would be extremely difficult for lawmakers to challenge or change. After gathering the necessary signatures, the petition was placed on the November 3, 1936 ballot as Constitutional Amendment 4. Voters overwhelmingly approved the measure 71 to 29 percent. As a result, Missouri would lead the nation by establishing the first non-political conservation agency.
The Conservation Commission consisted of four individuals appointed by the governor to serve six-year, unpaid terms. No more than two of these commissioners are to be from the same political party. Their purpose is to control, manage, and help establish good conservation practices, while regulating fishing, forestry, and wildlife resources in the state.
Missouri’s Department of Conservation (MDC) owns and oversees all of the state’s sanctuaries, hatcheries, refuges, and preservations across the state, as well as enforces the state’s wildlife code.
In 1976, forty years after the MDC became a department, another citizen-led group was successful in placing before voters an additional petition initiative, designed to provide a dedicated source of revenue for the Department. This was to be done through a 1/8th of one percent sales tax. With the slim passage of this constitutional amendment, the Department had its own permanent revenue source—and it had no sunset attached.
State officials attempted to divert some of the monies from the conservation tax to other state projects in 1999, only to have the Missouri Supreme Court rule in favor of the Conservation Department, stating the tax was to be used solely for the Department. In 2012, HJR 22 (a proposed constitutional amendment) was filed that sought to establish a ten-year sunset on the conservation tax and would require it to go before voters every ten years to be re-authorized. The proposal died in committee.
This year, HJR 8 was pre-filed and proposes to place a ten-year sunset on the tax. If approved by the House and the Senate, it will go to a vote of the people. If approved by voters, then every ten years it would need to be re-authorized, but the measure does not call for a complete repeal of the Missouri Conservation tax, as some have indicated. The bill’s sponsor stated it is his belief, as well as the belief of other members of the General Assembly, that all tax measures of this magnitude should have a sunset and need to be re-authorized by voters periodically. A good example of this type of tax is the Missouri Parks and Soils Sales tax that comes before voters every ten years. This tax is administered through the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
Missouri’s general state sales and use tax is 4.225%, which is divided into four funds to finance portions of state government and is distributed as follows: 3 cents on every dollar of sales goes to general revenue; 1 cent goes to education; .125% (1/8th of 1 cent) goes to the Department of Conservation; Missouri Parks and Soil gets .1% (1/10 of 1 cent). When a Missouri individual buys $8 of taxable goods, 1 cent of the state sales tax collected goes to the Missouri Department of Conservation. These pennies add up, and in the fiscal year 2014, they will exceed $107 million. Sales tax revenue makes up roughly 60% of MDC’s annual budget, with the other 40% (or $40 million) coming from license and permit sales (hunting, fishing, and trapping permits).The $40 million also includes some federal reimbursement money. SB 56 proposes to do away with all hunting, fishing, and trapping fees and permits for Missouri residents.
The Department of Conservation supports 100,000 Missouri jobs, with a reported economic impact of more than $12 billion annually. It is one of our state’s most powerful economic entities, but many feel that the MDC is “flush with cash.” Some say that they have more money than they know what to do with and point to their ownership of over 900,000 acres of Missouri land—some of which was gifted—as evidence. Since the tax passed in 1976, taxpayers have put $1.5 billion into the Missouri Department of Conservation. Some legislators say the Department is a self-governing body that answers to no one and has very little accountability to the state. The Department says the people of Missouri have given them the constitutional authority to operate in the manner in which they do and they do not have to answer to the legislature.
This has been and will continue to be a difficult issue with many compelling arguments on both sides of the matter.