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Urban-Rural Clash on Conservation Tax

October 7, 1996
By: Lara Hearnburg
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - An urban-rural clash that began in the state legislature last winter will appear on the November ballot. The issue involves whether to continue a sales tax used to finance parks, soil conservation and water conservation projects.

At the heart of the controversy is whether urban Missourians benefit from the tax that funds largely rural projects.

During the last session, urban legislators demanded that in return for their support for continuing the tax, urban parks be included in projects funded by the tax.

When rural legislators rejected those demands, the issue died in the legislature and a petition campaign was launched to get the issue on the ballot.

Without voter approval, the tax -- initially approved by Missouri voters in 1984 -- will expire November 1998.

Estil Fretwell, chief lobbyist for the Missouri Farm Bureau, worked to get the tax extension question put on November's ballot.

"In getting the initiative on the ballot, we asked people to sign the petition, and the same amount of people from both urban and rural areas signed," he said. "All Missourians benefit from the tax. We have access to one of the finest state park systems in the nation. And the money assures a good safe food supply and water quality."

The last time the initiative appeared on a Missouri ballot, in 1988, Fretwell said it was approved by more than 70% of Missouri voters. During this past legislative session though, the issue was surrounded by controversy.

Rep. Russell Gunn, D-St. Louis, said the money needs to be more evenly distributed.

"We're not looking to create animosities with rural areas, but we have needs. We have been paying a lot of money in to it and have not received benefits," he said.

But Fretwell said during the legislative session, the original question of the tax was clouded by other interests.

"The issue became a pawn of the political process whereby people tried to get a piece of a successful program and use it for other purposes," he said. "If these programs need money, they need to look into their own revenue sources for funding."

Also during the session there were questions raised about misuse of the funds within the current programs.

Sen. Bill Clay, D-St. Louis, described the current soil erosion project that is being funded with the tax money as "corruption at it's highest," and said the tax money has been wasted and misused.

Deirdre Hirner, Executive Director Conservation Federation of Missouri, who also worked to have the initiative on November's ballot, defended the way the money is being used.

"The discussions of misuse of soil conservation money came from somebody who wanted the money," she said. " There were one or two incidents where money was not used well. They were discovered during an audit and quickly corrected."

When considering whether or not the tax should be renewed, Hirner said people need to stay focused on long term environmental benefits.

"We need to focus more on benefiting all Missourians," she said. "Everybody drinks water; if you keep things out of the water, everybody benefits. They may not see direct financial benefits, but we're not looking at direct benefits. We're not a bunch of capsules. We're one state."

Clay, though, said he still has problems with the tax.

"I'm opposed to the initiative because the money is not equally distributed throughout the state. Cities don't get any of it. I don't think it's fair," he said." We need to devise a mechanism to evenly distribute the funds. We need a new formula to distribute the money so all of Missouri can benefit."

Fretwell said that despite legislative controversies surrounding the tax, he is confident the constitutional amendment will be approved.

"Since it's left the legislative arena, and moved to the ballot, it's opponents have been relatively quiet," he said.

Clay agreed there has not been much organized opposition to the ballot question, but said he still feels adamantly about defeating the tax.

"It's tough to start an organized campaign against the initiative because people look at it as just state parks and that's a feel good issue," he said. "I just hope voters realize they've had enough and defeat it."