News Briefs

Committee votes to increase size of Missouri Conservation Commission

By: - March 9, 2021 6:31 am
Exterior Missouri State Capitol building

Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. (Photo by ©Walter Bibikow)

A proposal to increase the size of the Missouri Conservation Commission and insert members of the Missouri House into the selection process won narrow approval Monday in a House committee.

But not before that committee was increased by eight members last week by order of House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, as the vote was looming.

When the constitutional amendment proposed by Rep. Chris Dinkins, R-Annapolis, had a public hearing Feb. 22, there was clear resistance from some Republican as well as all Democratic members of the House Conservation and Natural Resources Committee.

When the 13 members met March 1, action was postponed.

On Monday night, increased to 21 members, the proposal sponsored by state Rep. Chris Dinkins, R-Annapolis, passed the committee 11-8, with two Republicans joining all six committee Democrats in opposition.

Chairman Randy Pietzman, R-Troy, declined to discuss why the committee was larger when asked.

“A lot of us on this committee are freshmen and a lot of us wanted to understand the addition of new members and what is happening with that?” state Rep. Bridge Walsh Moore, D-St. Louis, asked.

“It is not something that I did,” Pietzman said. “They added some members to the committee and you will have to take that up with the speaker.”

One Republican member was added last Tuesday, Rep. Scott Cupps, R-Shell Knob, and Vescovo named five more on Thursday. That allowed Democrats to add two members.

As originally written, Dinkins’ proposal called for electing eight members from the geographic areas designated by the commission as conservation regions. A ninth member would be appointed by the governor.

Backers of the bill contend it will provide a more responsive commission with representation for all regions of the state. The detractors say it will make an agency that has worked well to manage fish, wildlife and forest resources more subject to political pressure.

Under the changes made Monday night, the election was dropped in favor of putting House members in charge of screening applicants for the eight slots. A House committee would select up to five names from the pool of candidates from each region and send them to the governor, who would be required to choose from that group.

The final step would be confirmation in the state Senate.

During the Feb. 22 public hearing, Rep. Bruce Sassman, R-Bland, questioned the use of conservation regions as a basis for selecting commissioners. The regions have widely varying populations, from 177,802 in the 15 counties of the northeast region to 2.1 million in the St. Louis region.

While Dinkins assured him the population differences didn’t matter, Sassman on Monday continued to be worried about a political takeover of the bipartisan commission under the revised pan. 

“If we have an unequal number of members, we will never again have another bipartisan commission because we could have more than 50 percent from one party,” he said.

When the Conservation Commission was created by initiative petition in 1936, the size was set at four members, appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate. No two members can be of the same political party.

State boards with an uneven number of members often come with a caveat that one party has no more than a bare majority of seats. That is the case for the University of Missouri Board of Curators, which has nine members, with eight divided around the state by equally populated congressional districts.

Dinkins proposal calls for members to be nonpartisan.

Before the vote, Pietzman rebuffed a request from one of the new members to put off the vote to give them time to study it and the other bills set for action. The votes could not be put off, he said, because the mid-session break is coming up and delay would mean two weeks would elapse before a vote could be held. 

“I have not been able to connect with the bill sponsors of what we are hearing and I don’t really feel prepared to vote on this,” said state Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-St. Louis.

After the vote, Rep. Michael Burton, D-Lakeshire, said the committee was packed to make sure the proposal would pass.

The plan created 85 years ago is working well and doesn’t need to be changed, Burton said.

“Our Missouri Conservation Commission is what the entire nation aspires to be,” he said. “We have one of the most incredible systems and there is no reason to dismantle it.”

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature. He’s spent 22 of his 30 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics, most recently as the news editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Keller has won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.