The Conservation Federation of Missouri held its annual meeting in Jefferson City earlier this month.
Roughly 500 members attended the event which was sponsored by Bass Pro Shops, one of the non-profit’s five platinum level business partners that contribute at least $10,000 to help fund its operations.
Among the other high-level donors to the organization are the Missouri Corn Merchandising Council and Associated Missouri Electric Cooperatives, which is essentially the power company for a wide swath of the rural part of the state.
The Conservation Federation is a 501(c)(3) that is funded by members, corporate donations, affiliate fees, grants and major contributions.
Executive Director Brandon Butler says, contrary to what some members of the state legislature mistakenly believe, the Conservation Federation receives no money from the Department of Conservation.
In fact, it was formed in 1935 for the purpose of keeping politics out conservation. Through a successful bid to place a measure before voters, the Federation was instrumental in creating the department itself.
The conservation state agency receives its funding through an eighth-of-a-cent sales tax along with licensing and permit fees and federal reimbursements. It comprises less than one percent of the state’s overall $28.8 billion budget and gets no funding from the general revenue, which is the money the legislature is in charge of.
Butler says lawmakers, who have no control over the department’s budget, try to exert more power every year through various proposals. He thinks the efforts pose a danger to an agency with a reputation for serving the public.
“Citizens of other states dream of having the Missouri model of conservation implemented in their state, where scientists are free from political control to make the decisions based on what is best for the entire state,” said Butler.
At least three bills are in the legislature this session that could impact how the Conservation Department functions. All of them are known as joint resolutions which require voter approval.
Two are from Republican Senator Brian Munzlinger, a lifelong farmer from northeast Missouri’s Williamstown. One of them would call on voters to reapprove the eighth-of-a-cent sales tax that funds the department every 10 years. It’s the Senator’s second attempt with the measure in as many years and it has yet to receive a hearing in a committee.
Munzlinger’s other proposal would double the size of the Conservation Commission, which sets the department’s policies and regulations, from four to eight members. It also has failed to move in committee although the Senator has sponsored similar legislation for several years.
But members of the Conservation Federation are more concerned about a proposal from Republican Representative Justin Hill of Lake St. Louis.
It would expand the Conservation Commission from 4-to-10 members and call on both the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tem of the Senate to appoint two members, one from each political party.
The Federation’s Butler contends that the bill’s provision for four lawmakers to sit on the commission would burden a fully functional Conservation Department with politics.
“We have many problems in this state,” said Butler. “We rely on our elected officials to represent us on many issues that we have serious problems with in Missouri. Conservation is simply not one of them.”
Federation member Steve Jones is troubled by a legislature he perceives to be unfriendly toward the Conservation Department.
“The hostility in that chamber towards Conservation is evidenced by the bills that come every year, the flood of bills that would either damage the Conservation Commission or threaten the design for the conservation sales tax that was passed by the people,” said Jones. “If they have all this concern about the people, why do keep attacking the things that the people voted for.”
Federation member Mark Zurbrick of south-central Missouri’s Newburg thinks Republicans in the legislature have shown a partisan opposition toward the Conservation Department.
“We can point at people that do not wish good things for the Conservation Department on both sides of the (aisle),” said Zurbrick. “But you can go and look at the votes and they appear to be party-line votes.”
There was recent drama in a legislative committee between its Republican members and the Federation. Republican Representative Chuck Basye of Rocheport had introduced a measure that would do away with hunting license fees for property owners who live out of state.
Federation Executive Director Butler spoke against the proposal. He noted Basye’s out of state brother would benefit if the measure passed and said the arrangement would amount to nepotism.
At the following committee hearing the next week, Butler was harshly criticized by numerous Republican members, including GOP chairperson Sonya Anderson of Springfield who said she was offended and appalled by his nature of the testimony. The committee subsequently passed Basye’s proposal on party lines.
Federation member Jones accuses Republicans of blatantly disregarding the organization’s concerns about the legislation. “It doesn’t pass the smell test for them to claim that they’re looking out for the public interest, but they don’t want to anything from the number one organization that represents the public interest in this topic, in this arena,” Jones said.
The Conservation Department stands to lose $500,000 in revenues if Basye’s proposal becomes law.
The Conservation Federation is the largest conservation group in the state and is the Missouri affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation.
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