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Conservation spending dispute moves to Missouri Supreme Court

by Ryan Pivoney | October 21, 2021 at 4:05 a.m. | Updated October 21, 2021 at 9:39 a.m.
This June 29, 2021, News Tribune photo shows the front of the Missouri Supreme Court building in Jefferson City.

A battle over appropriation abilities and the purchasing power of Missouri's Conservation Commission is making its way through the Missouri Supreme Court.

The Missouri Department of Conservation and Conservation Commission sued former Office of Administration Commissioner Sarah Steelman and Attorney General Eric Schmitt in August 2020 over authority to spend revenue for conservation purposes.

The Conservation Commission was created through a 1936 amendment to the Missouri Constitution and was given power to acquire property through purchase, gifts and eminent domain for conservation purposes. The Constitution was then amended in 1976 to create a sales and use tax, the revenue from which was to be held in the state treasury under the Conservation Commission fund.

Last year, the Conservation Commission approved a 510-acre land purchase in St. Claire County and requested Steelman make the payment from the Conservation fund.

Steelman refused because she said an appropriation bill for fiscal year 2021 didn't provide appropriations for the Conservation Commission to purchase land.

The Conservation Commission and MDC took the case to court to determine whether the constitutional amendments authorize the Conservation Commission to use funds without legislative action and whether limitations on the commission's purchasing power established by an appropriation bill would violate the Missouri Constitution's single- subject provision.

The Cole County Circuit Court sided with the Conservation Commission in April, finding that constitutional provisions grant the commission power over the Conservation fund, including what land to purchase and how much to pay.

The state appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which heard roughly 30 minutes of oral arguments Wednesday.

Jesus Osete, deputy solicitor general for the state, argued the Legislature retains appropriation power on all state revenue funds, "irrespective of whether or not those come from the general fund or the special fund."

Osete argued the Conservation Commission has been subject to the Legislature's appropriation discretion for the past 45 years and that shouldn't change without another constitutional amendment approved by voters.

He said there's only three ways appropriations can be made without going through the Legislature, such as a standing appropriation, and none of those apply to this case.

Heidi Vollet, representing the Conservation Commission and MDC, argued the constitutional provisions previously passed by voters are self-enforcing, meaning legislation isn't required for them to take effect.

Vollet said the state's argument overlooks the Conservation Commission's unique position granted by voters through constitutional amendments and wrongly allocates authority to the Legislature.

She pointed to the principle that states the General Assembly cannot, through appropriations or other laws, dictate or eliminate the functions assigned to other government entities through the Constitution.

The Conservation Federation of Missouri filed a brief in the case, arguing the state constitution grants the Conservation Commission exclusive authority over the conservation fund, Missouri courts have consistently upheld the commission's authority over the funds and the state's interference is "an attempted power grab."

Former Gov. Jay Nixon, the Conservation Federation of Missouri's attorney, said the court needs to have a long-term vision in deciding the issue.

"Clearly the court understands that the micromanagement of conservation funds was not what the public wanted in 1936, it's not what they wanted in 1976 when they passed the tax measure, and I think the court had a deep and appropriate understanding of the fact that the necessity of that separation is especially important now with the habitat challenges that we have," Nixon said.

The 510 acres of land the Conservation Commission was attempting to purchase includes 350 acres of the tallgrass prairie habitat, one of the state's most imperiled habitats.

Tyler Schwartze, executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, said many of the outdoor experiences offered throughout the state wouldn't be possible without the constitutional mandate for the Conservation Commission to manage natural resources - which would include purchasing land for conservation purposes.

"Attacks from the state Legislature are in direct conflict with the will of the people and decades of conservation success that has been the envy of the nation," Schwartze said.

Nixon said the state's decision to not appropriate funds was an overreach of the Legislature's authority.

"What the issue here is making sure that Missouri's lands and wild lands are protected by people who have a conservation value and are controlled by the constitutional amendment that the public spoke on," Nixon said. "And I think in that situation, the court will find that power to be strong and clear and that the overreach and attempt to micromanage conservation is not constitutional and is not correct."

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