Board- Public has spoken already on conservation tax

Saturday, March 12, 2005

To Missouri conservation officials, legislation that would require voter approval every 10 years for the state conservation department's one-eighth-cent sales tax goes against the nature of setting public policy.

The state's five-member conservation commission was in Cape Girardeau Thursday and Friday for meetings.

Commission members say the tax was something that came straight from the Missouri residents through signed petitions and not from the government.

The conservation tax was created by the people and shouldn't be placed to a vote by the state legislature, they say.

Proponents of the legislation say the conservation department is a renegade agency that rides roughshod over the public and spends wastefully. State Sen. John Cauthorn, R-Mexico, has said that without periodic votes, the department can't be held accountable.

Others say money spent on land could be better used by law enforcement, county government and schools.

Cynthia Metcalfe, a conservation commissioner from St. Louis, said she believes taxpayers knew what they were doing when they established a long-term tax. She says the conservation department is perhaps the most transparent agency in the state government.

Conservation department director John Hoskins said his department has held 58 meetings for the public in the last 18 months and not just in Jefferson City. He said the conservation department is in constant communication with the public throughout the state, particularly on hunting issues.

Sixty-four percent of the department's $133.9 million budget is paid for with the sales tax.

The conservation officials said they believed they have vast public support, but they said a cyclical vote would change their long-term approach.

"You can't take on the responsibility of conservation if you put it up for grabs every 10 years," Metcalfe said.

Denise Garnier, assistant to the director, said it would be "irresponsible" for the department to operate on the assumption that the tax would pass every 10 years.

She said it was the tax passed in 1976 that "turned things around" in Missouri.

"The voters wanted stable, long-term funding," she said. "Things like habitat improvement take a while. Some of these things take decades to reverse or improve."

A 10-year vote would "really suppress" some of the long-term conservation efforts, she said.


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