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Proposed legislation targets Missouri Department of Conservation

Pre-filed bills seek changes in agency's funding, commission January 4, 2015 at 6:00 a.m. | Updated January 4, 2015 at 6:00 a.m.
Jesse Jorgensen, left, and Cole Peters, right -- participants in the annual Winter Day Hike at Runge Nature Center in Jefferson City -- climb on trees Friday afternoon after practicing to build an emergency shelter.

The Missouri Department of Conservation could face serious funding shortfalls if bills pre-filed in the General Assembly wend their way through the legislature this spring.

Two of the bills require voter-approved changes to the state's Constitution. One seeks to ask voters if they want to eliminate a sales and use tax, dedicated for conservation purposes, by July 2017. A second would increase the number of people serving on the Conservation Commission from four at-large members to eight regional representatives.

A third bill, filed by Sen. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown, would dramatically reduce the fees the department charges for the acquisition of hunting, fishing and trapping permits. If Munzlinger's bill becomes law, the department would be prevented from charging such fees and would be limited to service fees, customer convenience fees or replacement fees, each limited to $2 for Missouri residents.

If passed by lawmakers, two of those bills could seriously erode the department's funding sources, opponents have said.

Deputy Director Tim Ripperger estimated hunting, fishing and trapping license fees typically generate $41 million for the department. Of that amount, $20 million is related to the sale of the actual permits and the rest is derived from federal excise taxes on sporting goods, which - since 1938 - have been collected and shared among the states using a formula based on the number of licensed permit buyers and each state's size.

"Hunters and anglers have a legacy of supporting conservation through permit sales, and they are proud of that," Ripperger said. "In Missouri, we look at conservation holistically. Hunters and anglers ... they are our first conservationists.

"And we have some of the most reasonable permit fees in the nation."

Munzlinger said he sees the permit fees as "double taxation."

"We do pay a sales tax to conservation," he said. "But when we want to partake in one of the outdoor sports, we have to pay again."

Ripperger also noted outdoor sports are an economic force in Missouri.

"From a national standpoint, hunters and anglers spend $76 billion ... creating an economic ripple of $192 billion in the economy," he said.

And while interest in outdoor sports might be declining in other areas of the United States, they are holding strong in Missouri, he said.

"In many of our rural communities, the money spent by hunters and anglers is enough to keep some small businesses afloat for a year. It's the lifeblood of some communities.

"So, if you look at it, the conservation sales tax generates money for Missouri. It's a tax that has a positive economic effect on our state in a number of ways."

Not only does Missouri see a revenue stream from hunting and fishing licenses, the department also has a dedicated revenue stream, a 1/8th of 1 percent sales tax enacted by citizens through the initiative petition process in 1976.

"Missouri voters passed the amendment to the Constitution," Ripperger said.

It is that revenue stream state Rep. Craig Redmon, R-Canton, wants voters to re-examine. Redmon did not return calls for this story.

The funds raised - about $110 million annually - are earmarked for Missouri conservation efforts.

Ripperger argued, at the Missouri level, such robust economic activity ultimately generates $507 million in state and local taxes. The return on the collected tax dollars is more than the tax is costing in the first place, he said.

Ripperger said the sales tax, permits sales and federal reimbursements make up 80 percent of the department's revenue sources. He added they comprise less than 1 percent of the state budget.

He said if these funding streams are interrupted, numerous programs - such as the Runge Nature Center, the Scrivner Road shooting range, school educational programming and landowner assistance - will be in jeopardy.

Although Munzlinger didn't introduce the bill asking voters if they want to eliminate the state's conservation sales and use tax, he said he supports doing so.

"Half the people in Missouri haven't voted on it," Munzlinger said. "We probably ought to vote on it every 10 years. ... I don't think any tax should be permanent."

Munzlinger said he supports putting the ideas to voters - not eliminating the tax entirely.

Munzlinger also proposed expanding the Conservation Commission from four to eight members.

According to the state Constitution, the commission - which is appointed by the governor with the consent of the Senate - is charged with appointing the department director, setting policy, approving Wildlife Code regulations, planning strategically and making major budget decisions.

Munzlinger pointed out Missouri is a diverse state in terms of its landscape and wildlife.

"It's been over 35 years since someone from Northeast Missouri has served on the commission," Munzlinger said.

He said he feels the state would be better served by having more people represent various regions of the state, which is why his bill recommends increasing the number of commissioners from four to eight. Currently, of the four, no more than two may be from the same party.

"I'm not really meaning to change anything dramatically. It will still have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats," he said. "I'm just giving Missourians better representation on the commission."

Some observers believe the three bills possibly were filed as retribution following a bruising legislative debate last session over the ability of landowners to raise captive deer on their property.

In that debate, wildlife biologists argued raising captive deer could exacerbate the state's problem with chronic wasting disease; farm groups defended their ability to raise captive deer as a private property right.

In the end, Gov. Jay Nixon - pointing out that the Missouri Constitution gives the commission sole regulatory authority over wildlife - vetoed the captive deer legislation.

Ken Babcock, a wildlife biologist from Jamestown who retired from MDC as an assistant director and who led Ducks Unlimited's southern regional office for more than a decade, noted many diseases that run rampant through wild populations tend to start in captive groups.

Duck viral enteritis did, he said.

"The department is right to have concerns about this," he said.

Babcock - who was serving in the department in 1976 when voters approved the sales tax - witnessed how it was implemented. He said, back in the early 1970s, people realized permit fees alone weren't enough to support the conservation programs the state needed.

Today, Babcock said Missouri has one of the most professional departments in the nation.

"It's second to none. With all of the economic challenges the state is facing, why would we use the precious time of the General Assembly to destroy something that works very well?" Babcock asked. "Our state is not flush with money."

Babcock argued in favor of keeping four at-large representatives and noted the commission was originally designed in 1936 to keep politics out of hunting and fishing.

"One of the things that makes our state's conservation department so good is that the commissioners represent the whole state, not a single region," he said. "My hope is these bills won't take a lot of time from the Legislature."

Munzlinger also has introduced a bill legalizing the sale of captive cervid (deer) meat commercially raised for food. The bill suggested regulation of the practice would be done by the U.S. and Missouri Departments of Agriculture and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. This bill also limits the number of animals to seven per acre and requires each animal to have federal ID tags to be processed.

Munzlinger on Tuesday was not ready to talk about the new bill.

"That's a separate issue," he said.

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