MDC in the legislative crosshairs
The start of Missouri’s legislative session signaled the continuation of a back-and-forth battle between a group of GOP lawmakers and the state’s Department of Conservation. The general assembly has proposed 12 pieces of legislation1 targeting the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) funding, regulatory control, leadership structure, enforcement activity, and land ownership.
Proponents of the proposed legislation cite the need for increased accountability of the Conservation Department to taxpayers who help fund the department through the 1/8th of 1 percent Conservation Sales tax passed in 1976. Unlike Missouri’s Soil and Park Tax2 (1/10th of 1 percent), which is approved by voters every 10 years, the conservation sales tax lacks a sunset clause. The sales tax averages ~$100 million of annual revenue for the department and represents nearly 60% of the department’s budget, with the majority of the remaining 40% (~$50 million) coming from the collection of permit fees (~20%) and associated federal reimbursement dollars (~15%).3 None of the department’s funding comes from general revenue.
The Conservation Department has cautioned that any reduction in funding levels could jeopardize the entire state conservation program and points out that the $150 million budget of the department, which represents less than 1% of the total state budget, results in annual revenue of $12 billion from hunting, fishing, and forest products.4 The Department enjoys broad public support, as evidenced by 2013 polling numbers from the University of Missouri, which found ⅔ of those questioned believed the department was doing an “excellent” or “good” job. The battle lines have been drawn and there’s a lot of proposed legislation to unpack, so let’s get started.
Here’s a rundown of the proposed legislation coming out of the Senate:
Senate Bill 56: Proposed by Senator Munzlinger (R), 18th District – First read – 1/7/15
Current Status: Hearing conducted (2/25/15)- Senate Agriculture, Food Production, and Outdoor Resources Committee
Summary: Proposed legislation modifying hunting, fishing, and trapping permit fees for Missouri residents.
As it was originally introduced, this bill would have stripped the Conservation Department of the ability to charge fees associated with permits for Missouri residents, with the exception of no more than $2 in service fees. Senator Munzlinger recently softened the bill’s language following the revelation by the MDC that federal law required state wildlife agencies to collect permit fees in order to receive matching federal funds5 – funds that would have been rerouted to other states if permit fees were no longer collected. Senator Munzlinger has proposed a 50% permit fee discount for non-residents that own at least 80 acres of land in Missouri in place of the original bill language.
Senate Bill 178: Proposed by Senator Munzlinger (R), 18th District – First read – 1/29/15
Current Status: Second read (1/29/15) and referred to Senate Government Accountability and Fiscal Oversight Committee.
Summary: Proposed legislation to modify provisions relating to captive cervids.
2015’s SB 178 is a replica of Senator Munzlinger’s 2014 legislation (SB 506), which would have added captive deer to the definition of livestock. Reclassifying captive deer would transfer regulatory authority from the Department of Conservation to the Department of Agriculture. This transfer would ease restrictions on the captive deer (high-fence, “fish-in-a-barrel” hunting) industry. 2014’s bill moved through the Senate and the House before meeting Governor Nixon’s veto pen. In a statement regarding the bill (and House Bill 1326), Nixon said:6
“Redefining deer as livestock to remove the regulatory role of Department defies both its clear record of achievement as well as common sense. White-tailed deer are wildlife and also game animals – no matter if they’re roaming free, or enclosed in a fenced area.”
Battle lines have been drawn over the issue of captive deer regulatory control, with the American Cervid Alliance (representing 39 elk, deer, and exotic associations) hiring the notorious PR firm Berman & Co.7 to help change public opinion of the captive deer industry through the creation of nonprofit corporations and the placement of messages throughout local media from supportive lawmakers8 and industry insiders. Governor Nixon has maintained the Conservation Department’s constitutional authority over the management of wildlife and the department has pointed to the risk the industry poses for the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease9 (CWD) among wild deer as justification for the more stringent regulations passed since the veto.
The new regulations, which the captive deer industry believe will cripple their businesses, include: banning the importation of deer from other states, testing diseased deer at least 6 months old for CWD, and installing 8-foot tall fencing. Governor Nixon recently summarized the argument for supporting the status quo:
“I think sticking with the model we’ve had in the past, an independent organization that has direct dedicated fund is focused just on that, that gives them the flexibility and the responsibility to make a good long term decision to give us a better strategy to keep Chronic Wasting Disease out of Missouri and to keep our deer herd healthy”.
Senate Bill 337: Proposed by Senator Munzlinger (R), 18th District – First read – 1/28/15
Current Status: Second read (2/19/15) and referred to Senate Rules, Joint Rules, Resolutions, and Ethics Committee.
Summary: Bans the Conservation Commission and the Department of Conservation from engaging in prohibited conduct with a connected not-for-profit corporation.
This proposal stems directly from the results of a 2013 audit of the Conservation Department by state auditor Tom Schweich, that uncovered conflicts of interest associated with 2 of the 4 conservation commissioners. The commissioners had violated state law by failing to disclose that they were serving on boards for non-for-profit corporations contracted by the MDC. That same 2013 audit found that the MDC had provided pay raises that had not been provided to other state employees and that the MDC failed to accurately estimate the costs of an elk reintroduction project (129 had been introduced as of the 2013 report) that ballooned from an estimated cost of $411,000 to an actual cost of $3,381,615.
The 2013 audit gave the MDC a “Good” grade, which describes a “well managed” organization that “has indicated that most or all recommendations have already been, or will be, implemented” and that “prior recommendations have been implemented”. The pay raises and the price tag of the elk introduction10 have been the primary talking points for GOP lawmakers and the allies of the captive deer industry trying to make the case for reigning in the department’s spending. This bill could potentially impact many of the MDC’s conservation efforts, as it would jeopardize partnerships with nonprofit organizations, such as The Audubon Society of Missouri, that play significant roles in monitoring and managing wildlife statewide.
Senate Joint Resolution 1: Proposed by Senator Munzlinger (R), 18th District – First read – 1/7/15
Current Status: Second read (2/5/15) and referred to Senate Agriculture, Food Production, and Outdoor Resources Committee.
Summary: Modifies the membership composition and terms of service of the commissioners on the Conservation Commission.
If approved by voters, this proposed constitutional amendment would increase the number of Conservation Commissioners from 4 to 8 and would require one commissioner to be appointed from each of the 8 conservation regions. This amendment would also change the term limits for commissioners from 6 years to either 2 terms or 12 years – whichever comes first. Senator Munzlinger’s argument for altering the composition of the commission comes down to taxpayer representation. “Northeast Missouri hasn’t had someone on the commission in more than 35 years“, stated Senator Munzlinger when asked about the resolution.
Opponents to the measure maintain that the current structure – 4 commissioners appointed by the governor, with no more than 2 from the same political party – has largely kept politics out of departmental decision-making. If commissioners are advocating for specific constituents, the argument goes, resources will be fought over, rather than shared for a holistic long-term conservation plan with the entire state in mind.
Senate Concurrent Resolution 25: Proposed by Senator Munzlinger (R), 18th District – Offered – 2/19/15
Current Status: Referred (2/23/15) to Senate Rules, Joint Rules, Resolutions and Ethics committee.
Summary: Establishes the Missouri Wildlife Revitalization Task Force.
While this resolution lacks the force of law, it does initiate a process that would focus research and proposed legislation and/or other proposals to minimize the negative impacts on areas of the state that are currently, or will be, dealing with Chronic Wasting Disease. While there exists no evidence of transmission of CWD from animal to human, the presence of the disease poses serious health threats to deer populations and to public perceptions surrounding deer hunting and the consumption of venison. This resolution effectively aims to do what the Conservation Department is tasked with by law, manage wildlife populations.
While the task force lacks teeth and cannot force the Conservation Department’s hand, it will be able to “call upon any department, office, division, or agency of this state to assist in gathering information pursuant to its objective”. The task force will consist of a combination of lawmakers, conservation and hunting organization representatives, landowners in affected areas, and captive deer industry representatives. The task force is set to be terminated by either a majority vote or by December 31, 2015, at which time a final report will be issued to the general assembly and the Department of Conservation.
Coordinated legislative effort
After the veto of 2014’s Senate Bill 506, Senator Munzlinger has only redoubled his efforts to influence the funding, regulatory authority, and leadership composition of the Conservation Department. The slew of legislation taking aim at the MDC isn’t Senator Munzlinger’s crusade alone, as evidenced by the many bills introduced in the House. Stay tuned for the House edition of the “Missouri Legislative Update” with a focus on the Department of Conservation.
- Plus 1 Concurrent Resolution (SCR 25) for good measure. ↩
- Approved by voters in 1984, half of this tax goes towards the funding of Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources Division of State Parks. Some lawmakers have argued that many voters in 1976 wrongly believed that the conservation sales tax would help fund the maintenance of Missouri state parks. ↩
- see MDC 2012-2013 Annual Report and MDC 2014-2015 Budget Request ↩
- Revenue based on a 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recreation survey. ↩
- The Pittmon-Robertson Act of 1937 provides funds to each state for wildlife management based upon land area and the number of permitted hunters. ↩
- Governor Nixon’s veto message can be viewed here. ↩
- Several high-profile pieces have been written about Richard B. Berman and his PR firm. Here are just a few. ↩
- Representative Bryan Spencer recently accused the ACA and their PR firm of submitting an op-ed with unauthorized content to several Missouri newspapers under his name. I have found additional “shared content” used by Representative Spencer and Representative Bill Reiboldt in recent op-eds/newsletters. This is a clear example of the captive deer industry using sympathetic lawmakers as their mouthpiece. ↩
- INDYSTAR’s Ryan Sabalow brought to light many of the issues surrounding Chronic Wasting Disease and the captive deer industry in his incredible investigative piece, “Buck Fever”. ↩
- The captive deer industry has also pointed to the department’s Elk introduction as a possible source for CWD transmission among wild cervids. ↩