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Proposed constitutional amendment would continue funding stream for Missouri state parks

Mo. Dept. of Natural Resources

The first of six ballot measures before Missouri voters this November has not generated any controversy – so far. Constitutional Amendment 1 would renew the state's parks and soils tax for another 10 years. 

Missouri voters added the parks and soils tax to the state Constitution in 1984 to create predictable funding for state parks and conservation projects. Voters have also approved its renewal three times.

The one-tenth of one percent tax brought in more than $88 million during Fiscal Year 2015, and the annual take has averaged roughly $78 million since 2001.  Bill Bryan is director of Missouri's state park system.  He said about half of the revenue collected each year goes to state parks.

"That's about 75 percent of the funding available to do everything from paint a building, put a new roof on a building, repair a trail, to pay the staff that work there, (or) to build something new," Bryan said.

The rest of its funding comes from such things as camping fees, concessions and souvenir sales. Federal sources brought in $1.4 million in Fiscal 2015 and $700,000 in Fiscal 2016. Bryan says it would be "a pretty dire day" if Amendment 1 fails.

"You'd have to look at everything from staffing reductions, which, in turn, affects the services that the public experiences," he said. "You would have to look at whether or not some parks would be better operated by local or county or private enterprise; and some facilities, you just may need to close them."

As for how a defeat would affect conservation projects performed by the Department of Natural Resources, they would essentially be defunded.

Credit Mo. Dept. of Natural Resources
Johnson's Shut-ins State Park

"A hundred percent of the soil and water program is funded by the sales tax … so essentially, it goes away," Bryan said. "That would be a real tragedy to be the state with the greatest reduction in soil erosion over the past few decades to suddenly have no dollars attributed to soil and water conservation would be a tragedy."

A potential defeat of Amendment 1 would negatively impact DNR, but not the Missouri Department of Conservation. While the two agencies have similar missions, MDC has its own funding stream.

Bryan and other state employees are forbidden by state law from campaigning or officially advocating for Amendment 1. That task is being handled by several groups, including the Missouri Farm Bureau.  Spokesman Estil Fretwell says backers include both agricultural and environmental advocates.

"It does bring together a rather diverse coalition of groups that a lot of times don't see eye-to-eye on issues, but we do set aside any differences we may have, recognizing that this is an important program," Fretwell said. "I think the voters recognize the benefits of the program, but also recognize the fact that when you have this diverse group of organizations working together (that) there must be some value in the program."

Meanwhile, former state senator Joan Bray, D-University City, has expressed concerns over how revenues from the tax are spent.  Although she supports Amendment 1, she says she would like to see more funding for soil conservation efforts in urban areas.

Echo Bluff State Park
Credit Mo. Dept. of Natural Resources
Echo Bluff State Park

"We don't have the kind of projects that historically have qualified under the definition of soil conservation, erosion control, and that kind of thing, but we do have issues in the urban areas," she said.  "Everybody pays it in their sales tax, and I would just hope that the administrators of the tax would make sure that all these areas do have access to the tax."

Bray also wants to see more revenue used to combat erosion in forested areas of southern Missouri.

Such criticism of priorities is about as harsh as comments go on the ballot measure. Even Americans for Prosperity, a conservative organization that strongly preaches against tax increases, is taking a pass.  State director Jeremy Cady chose not to comment, but says the group is not opposing Amendment 1.


Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.