A Stone in My Shoe

There’s a stone in my shoe. A sliver in my finger. A burr under my saddle. A pain in my derriere. By now, I should be immune. But politics and politicians can find a way to mess up even the most perfect day. It just can’t be helped.

Long ago, for a few years, I worked in Missouri’s statehouse and I loved it, mostly. Proud to serve. Proud some of my work helped elected officials pass legislation. Proud to help Missouri become a better place for all of us. Those days were the beginning of my education about Missouri politics. And it was also where I first learned about the love hate relationship between the legislature and the Missouri Conservation Commission.

During my first weeks on the job, I was introduced to my committee chairman and various other House members. I recall a representative welcoming me, and after hearing my background, saying, “If you can find a way to get control of Conservation’s money, that would be a good thing.” In 1987, this legislator was wringing his hands about the Conservation Commission having “all that money.”

I was naïve. I didn’t know the history, but I learned fast. In 35 years and in a few words, here is what I learned: If you were to build a conservation department from scratch. Build it for success. It would look pretty much just like what we have in Missouri. It’s often said Missouri created the gold standard for how to build and fund a conservation agency, and I can attest this to be true.

A couple other states have come close. And many other states have solid conservation departments and programs, but the Missouri Model of Conservation, as it is often called, is still the example others hold in highest regard.

But we have this terrible problem. Somewhere deep inside the state operating budget of around $35 billion dollars, you’ll find MDC’s tiny pot of gold of about $173 million. For perspective, you have to combine MDC, with two other agencies to even see the amount on a chart at 2% of the entire state budget.

Yet for 40 years, some politicians continue to fuss and fret. They speak all the tired political cliches and 100 variations about accountability and oversight. But that’s not what it’s ever been about. It’s really about control. You see, he who controls the purse makes the rules.

In recent years legislators have even manipulated the appropriation process (and their own rules) as a way to dictate and control Department of Conservation priorities. An aggravation hopefully to be soon resolved by the state Supreme Court.

In the meantime, another bill works its way through the legislature, HJR 134, that will put politicians in control of the money. Again, the sponsor of the bill says this is about accountability, but what it will actually do is allow politicians to reach inside the Department’s budget and decide conservation priorities, and by default, pretty much everything the Department does. A truly scary proposition.

Now I understand some folks don’t like MDC. Usually, it’s because of some first world problem like having to buy a permit, a land purchase, rules about feral hogs, or some other end-of-the-world crises. Yet, after 85 years under the Missouri Model, we have better hunting and fishing than ever before, more public lands to use, outstanding programs and services for landowners, youth programs for learning about nature and conservation, and countless other things to benefit our lives and economy of the state.

My spousal unit has little patience for this nonsense. When she sees the perennial offering of legislation to change, gut, and usurp the Conservation Department, the kitchen counter tirade begins.

“If their constituents knew how much time they wasted on unimportant things, most of them wouldn’t have a job.” she says with some authority. She’s right, of course. Yep, we better control MDC. If they keep making things better, people might want to live here.

I got an idea. Let’s trash an 85-year legacy of success and replace it with political whim. This way we can cater to flavor-of-the-day special interests and the sound of squeaky wheels. And won’t have to keep answering those pesky phone calls from other states wanting to be just like us, because we’ll be just like them.

by Dan Zekor


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