The conservation tax

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Since voters approved a eighth-cent sales tax for the Missouri Conservation Department in 1976, several things have happened, most of which are regarded as good.

The MCD embarked on a land-acquisition program to set aside conservation areas in every county, preserving some of the best nature areas the state has to offer outside of the Department of Natural Resources' state park system. And numerous tracts have been set aside for hunting and fishing enthusiasts.

The MCD also has used tax revenue to fund most of its other operations (about one-fourth comes from such things as hunting and fishing permits). No conservation department money comes from the state's general revenue.

The MCD is regarded as the model program every other state would like to have, if only they had a dedicated revenue source like Missouri.

Missouri is heavily populated by outdoor enthusiasts. Missourians who hunt, fish and enjoy the natural bounty of the state consider themselves fortunate to have a well-funded conservation department.

28 years of conservation spending

In the past 28 years, the MCD has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its programs -- including first-rate facilities like the nature center being built in Cape Girardeau and already operating in other urban areas -- and land acquisitions. It is one of the largest landowners in the state.

A state senator has proposed letting Missourians vote in 2006 on whether they want the eighth-cent sales tax for conservation to continue. And under state Sen. John Cauthorn's proposed constitutional amendment voters would get an opportunity to vote on the tax every 10 years.

First, however, voters would have to approve the constitutional amendment.

Sunset provisions, which end special tax levies unless voters reauthorize them, are useful tools. They give voters a level of accountability that revenue from a special tax will be used as promised. Sunset provisions also allow voters to decide if the revenue generated by a tax is still needed at some future date.

As a rule, sunset provisions are a part of the package when a tax is first proposed to voters. But the every-10-year vote proposed by Cauthorn comes years after the special conservation tax started and after the state -- currently bogged in too many spending requests for available revenue -- has become dependent on the special tax revenue to operate one of the state's most successful programs.

Allow 10 years before next vote

Voters, even enthusiastic supporters of Missouri's conservation programs, are pretty much at their tax limit. It's quite possible that a majority of Missourians would, as they have in several statewide tax votes recently, say no and put an end to the tax. Under Cauthorn's plan, it would be the responsibility of the MCD and its supporters to convince voters that the eighth-cent sales tax has been used appropriately and should continue.

It would have been fairer to the MCD and to Missouri taxpayers if the sunset provision for the conservation tax had been part of the original proposal in 1976. It wasn't, and requiring voters to reapprove the tax in 2006 could put a popular and successful department in jeopardy. The state isn't likely to have excess revenue to fund the MCD if the tax should fail.

Cauthorn's proposal would make more sense if the next vote on the conservation tax was scheduled for 10 years from now instead of just two years. That's how much time the MCD would have had if a 10-year sunset provision had been part of the original plan back 1976.

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