A bill to add transparency to state purchases of land is moving through the Missouri legislature.
The measure’s a response to land acquisitions for state parks under Democratic Governor Jay Nixon. During his tenure, the state spent $150 million on park purchases. Nixon often pointed to strong voter approval in November of a small sales tax for parks as proof that the acquisitions were popular.
Republican Senator Mike Cunningham of Rogersville, who’s sponsoring the bill, is concerned that purchases for parks will erode the tax base for public schools in some areas.
“The conservation commission, they go ahead and continue to pay taxes” said Cunningham. “Bu the parks do not. I think they pay them for five years, and then the tax base is gone out of the property. So you take several thousand acres, like in Oregon County, 125,000 acres is already owned by the federal and state government. So they’re just whacking away at another 8,000 acres.”
The state parks system purchased the Eleven Point State Park in Oregon County for $8 million dollars last year. It was announced to the public simultaneously with the purchase of Bryant Creek State Park for $4 million and Ozark Mountain State Park for $2.8 million.
Cunningham says the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which makes land purchases for parks, was evasive during its acquisition last year of a park in Oregon County.
“First of all, we couldn’t get them to hold a public hearing. When we finally got them to, they held one in St. Louis, and one 100 miles away. They didn’t give local citizens any input in it whatsoever.”
The state also financed an elaborate $62 million project to complete the Echo Bluff state park in southeast Missouri.
A number of bills from Republicans have pushed back on the park purchases under Nixon. One from Representative Randy Pietzman of Troy centered on dissatisfaction with land purchases while existing parks are in a state of disrepair.
“They told me if they don’t fix these facilities by next year or the year after, at least tell them they’re going to fix them, they’re all going somewhere else” said Pietzman. “To me that raised a lot of concern. They’re just letting these places go so bad that groups that are supposed to be enjoying them feel like they can’t even come back anymore.”
Under the measure sponsored by Cunningham, the state would be required to hold a public hearing in counties affected by land purchases. Elected officials would also have to be notified, and postings would have to be made on state agency websites, and in newspapers.
House Republican Paul Fitzwater of Potosi thinks DNR needs to do a better job of publicizing its land purchases.
“They didn’t contact us” said Fitzwater. “They said it was on their website. It’s like I’ve said before. I don’t get up every morning and get on DNR’s website and see what’s going on. I think they should be required to let us know. Some transparency there.”
Cunningham’s measure (Senate Bill 35) has traveled through the Senate, and received a hearing in the house. It faces an uphill battle making it to the governor’s desk this year with precious little time left in the session.