A model for state to emulate
Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune
April 22, 2005 ANDY0422
At the April 2 Ducks, Wetlands and Clean Water Rally in St. Paul, Gov. Tim Pawlenty reiterated his support for a movement in Minnesota toward a "Missouri model" of conservation -- an idea that has been floated here for years without much encouragement by the Legislature.
Pawlenty's proposal, and that of others, is to mimic a program in Missouri in which a percentage of the sales tax permanently funds that state's Department of Conservation, which is widely considered to be the best in the nation. Additionally, as envisioned by Minnesota supporters of the Missouri program, a small Minnesota citizens commission would oversee the DNR, rather than the governor, as currently is the case here.
In an attempt to explain how the Missouri system works, in 2001 I published interviews with Ed Stegner of Pilot Grove, Mo., and Joel Vance of Russellville, Mo., who were instrumental in establishing that state's conservation program in the 1970s, and Anita Gorman, of Kansas City, Mo., one of the conservation commission's four members. Edited portions of those interviews are republished below in an attempt to clear up the considerable confusion that still exists at the Minnesota Capitol about how and why Missouri's conservation system works so well.
Q: How difficult was it in Missouri to dedicate one-eighth of 1 percent of the state sales tax to conservation?
A: (Stegner) The first thing we had to decide was whether to try to establish it by constitutional amendment or in statute. We decided if we did it by statute, the legislature could repeal it at anytime. The only sure way to do it was by constitutional amendment.
(Vance) It's important to reiterate that in Missouri, people can get proposals like this on the statewide ballot through initiative. In Minnesota you can't do that; you have to go through the legislature. In any event, the Missouri plan was voted on in 1976 and went into effect in '77.
Q: Did the plan grow out of frustration with conservation as it was being practiced in Missouri prior to 1976?
A: (Vance) People were generally pleased. They just realized that to do more, and do it better, there needed to be more money.
(Stegner) An important role was played by a special commission that issued a report saying what the key conservation issues were in the state. After the report was presented, a statewide committee was formed. That committee said we needed more money, but didn't say where the funds should come from. Eventually, we ended up with the one-eighth of 1 percent idea.
Q: Because the Missouri Legislature can't withhold the sale-tax money from the Department of Conservation, and because the department is run/guided by a four-member citizens commission -- not the Legislature and not the governor -- are politics minimized in conservation in Missouri?
A: (Vance) They are. The commission in particular has been very effective. Even commissioners who might not have had great conservation track records prior to their appointments do a good job.
Q: Why four commissioners?
A: (Vance) Four has worked great. I'm a great believer in economy of government. The commission doesn't have a staff; just a secretary at the Department of Conservation.
Q: The Missouri proposal had broad appeal beyond hunters and anglers. How important is that to selling the idea?
A: (Vance) Very important. We sold the program on two principles: Save something for future generations, which appealed to everyone, and save something for yourself.
Q: Do you think conservation as a practice, and natural resources in general, are improving in Missouri, staying the same or losing ground?
A: (Gorman) Without a doubt, improving. Wildlife in general are in better shape than ever. There are a few exceptions, of course. But overall, I'd say, you bet they're better.
Q: Discuss how the commission handles conservation conflicts, such as wetland drainage, wildlife management, and so forth.
A: (Gorman) First of all, because the department is well-funded, we can hire the best. And we do: Our staff has no peer. So when they come to us with a proposal, or information, we know it has been well-researched and considered. Consequently, it is rare for us to take exception. But we do, occasionally.
Q: The dedicated portion of the sales tax that funds the Missouri Department of Conservation is important, obviously, to the department. How important is it to conservation as a whole as practiced in Missouri?
A: (Gorman) It's critical. And it absolutely divorces you from politics. If you are continually going to the legislature to ask for money, you're in trouble.
Q: Most states, including Missouri, have citizens commissions to help guide natural resource management. Minnesota does not. Are such commissions necessary, in your opinion?
A: (Gorman) I can't overstate their importance. You can't, for example, expect state employees to be politically active in the types of issues we face. Yet when necessary, our commission can be and is -- and I mean in a positive sense, to benefit conservation. Sometimes, for example, there are issues in which the governor's help is vital. The department staff can't go to him and ask. You've got to have people who are able to do that. And we do.
Dennis Anderson is at email@example.com