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Audit of Missouri Conservation Department announced as new director sworn in

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(The Center Square) – Almost a century after citizens created a conservation department separated from politics and a year after Missouri’s Supreme Court affirmed its independence from the General Assembly, Republican Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick announced an audit.

Fitzpatrick announced the review Monday and described it in a media release as “an additional layer of accountability for the Missouri Department of Conservation, which now has unprecedented autonomy over its approximately $215 million budget due to a 2023 Missouri Supreme Court Decision that resulted in limiting the oversight authority of the General Assembly.”

The audit comes days after the retirement of Sara Parker Pauley as director of the department and Monday’s swearing in of Jason Summers, Pauley’s replacement who formerly served as the department’s deputy director for resource management. Last month, the department announced plans to increase prices for some hunting and fishing permits.

In 2021, a circuit court ruled Missouri voters in 1936 created the conservation organization with complete authority over its fund. The organization’s four-member board is appointed by the governor. The circuit court ruling was upheld in 2023 by the Missouri Supreme Court in a 4-3 decision.

“… the people of Missouri created the Conservation Commission within the executive branch and ‘constitutionally empowered’ it to expend and use conservation funds for any of the enumerated purposes in the constitution ‘without interference’ by the General Assembly,” Chief Justice Paul Wilson wrote in the majority opinion.

In 1976, voters approved a one-eighth of 1% sales tax to expand the department and ensure the funds go directly to the department.

“That consistent funding, plus a strong, non-political structure and very supportive public helped make Missouri a national leader in conservation,” the department states on its website.

In its fiscal year 2023 review, the department highlights its annual budget is less than 1% of the state’s $52 billion budget for 2023 and it receives no general revenue. It reported receiving $163 million from the sales tax, it’s largest source of revenue.

In her letter accompanying the 2023 report, Pauley reflected on the department’s first director, I.T. Bode, facing political challenges.

“His charge, in retrospect, seemed clear – bring back the game species that had been lost to the challenges of his time, namely market hunting, meager law enforcement, and political constraints,” Pauley wrote. “But I know his task was no simpler, as his charge also included standing up an agency born out of a constitutional referendum and public directive. And over time, each director, and the commissions that provided oversight and strategic direction, have lived their own journey of shepherding efforts to move conservation forward amid the challenges and opportunities of their day.”

Fitzpatrick highlighted the department’s last audit in 2018 when it received a rating of “fair.” The audit, by Democrat Auditor Nicole Galloway, found the department provided more than $120,000 in additional benefits to former director Robert Ziehmer after his termination.

“With every other state department, the General Assembly has a level of oversight provided through the appropriations process that can ensure tax dollars are allocated and used appropriately,” Fitzpatrick said in a statement. “However, with that authority now limited due to the court decision, specifically in regard to the Department of Conservation, it makes it vitally important that we stand in the gap for taxpayers and provide what will be the only layer of accountability for the department and its spending decisions.”

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