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Missouri Supreme Court rules lawmakers had no power to limit conservation spending

The Supreme Court of Missouri in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Supreme Court of Missouri in Jefferson City.

The court ruled that the Missouri Conservation Commission — not lawmakers — has the power to spend appropriated funds. The decision could influence a pending Cole County case over how much Department of Transportation employees get paid.

Lawmakers “invaded” the authority of the Missouri Conservation Commission when they tried to limit the use of its dedicated funds, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

In the long-anticipated decision, the court split 4-3 over whether appropriation bills could bar the commission from spending money on land acquisition or for payments to replace lost property taxes from conservation lands.

The majority decision, unsigned but supported by Chief Justice Paul Wilson and Judges Mary Russell, Robin Ransom and George Draper, upheld a decision from Cole County Circuit Judge Cotton Walker, who found the commission can spend appropriated funds for any constitutional purpose.

The state constitution spells out the duties and powers of the commission and provides a source of funds to carry out its mission, the opinion states.

“These provisions do not, however, leave any room for the General Assembly to interfere with the Conservation Commission’s performance of its constitutional purposes,” the majority wrote.

The decision delivered Tuesday came almost 20 months after the court heard arguments in the case, one of the longest consideration periods in memory. The court typically delivers a decision in a case in four or five months.

The Conservation Department did not respond to a request for comment on the decision.

The case is being closely watched not just because of its impact on the powers of the General Assembly over the Department of Conservation but also because of a pending decision, also from Walker, on the spending authority of the Highways and Transportation Commission.

While the constitution does offer some latitude to the Conservation Commission about exactly how to use appropriated funds, it does not allow the commission to ignore legislative decisions, the dissent by Judge Patricia Breckenridge stated.

Judges W. Brent Powell and Zel Fischer joined in the dissent.

The constitutional authority of the commission is subservient to the legislature’s appropriation authority, Breckenridge wrote.

“That language does not convey the voters’ intent to grant the Conservation Commission powers within the power of appropriation,” Breckenridge wrote. “Instead, that language conveys only the intent that conservation funds must be spent by the Conservation Commission for the purposes designated in the constitution.”

The particular situation that triggered the lawsuit came in August 2020. The commission approved $1 million to buy 510 acres of imperiled prairie habitat in St. Clair County as an addition to the Linscomb Wildlife Area and $900,000 for payment in lieu of taxes on conservation lands.

In the appropriations for that year, lawmakers had not included money for the payments in lieu of taxes and struck language from the appropriation bill allowing land acquisition. When then-Commissioner of Administration Sarah Steelman refused to honor payment requisitions, the commission sued.

In the majority opinion, the judges wrote that by removing the language allowing land acquisition and refusing to appropriate tax payment funds, lawmakers “invaded the constitutional authority of the Conservation Commission by attempting to limit the constitutionally enumerated purposes for which the Conservation Commission could use its funds.”

The Conservation Commission was created by an initiative petition in the 1930s to take protection of land and wildlife out of political hands. Its powers were expanded, and a one-eighth cent sales tax enacted, in the 1970s to strengthen the department.

That history, as well as the language of the constitution, shows the intent to limit legislative power over the agency, the majority wrote.

“The very reason behind the Conservation Commission’s creation was to remedy the failure of existing government bodies in the 1930s, including the General Assembly, to set aside politics and properly manage Missouri’s conservation needs,” the opinion states.

The key for Breckenridge — and a point that will be important when Walker rules on the Highways and Transportation Commission lawsuit — is whether the constitutional language shifts appropriation power to the commission.

It does not on land acquisition, but it does on payments in lieu of taxes, she wrote. The constitution directs the commission to set the amount and lawmakers cannot change it, she wrote.

Many areas of the constitution and statues direct that money shall be spent for a particular purpose, but that does not appropriate money for those purposes, she wrote.

In contrast, she wrote, the language governing highway money “provides funds in the state road fund ‘stand appropriated without legislative action’ to be used and expended by the highways and transportation commission…”

In the highways commission lawsuit, Walker is being asked to decide whether employees of the Department of Transportation can be paid more than lawmakers allowed in appropriation bills.

Walker heard arguments in the case in February 2022. He has held his decision, attorneys in the case have said, to learn the results of the conservation case.

During this year’s legislative session, Republican lawmakers upset over the lawsuit tried unsuccessfully to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot making highway funds subject to appropriations.

This story was originally published in the Missouri Independent.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature for the Missouri Independent.
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