As the Legislature counts down the final hours of the 100th General Assembly our sole constitutional obligation of passing a state budget is behind us. The $35 billion budget we sent to the governor on May 8 fully funds K-12 education and maintains essential social services programs, despite facing a shortfall in general revenue. As I look back on our deliberations, my thoughts go to a relatively insignificant line in the budget – a $300,000 appropriation to the Department of Conservation to support the “Share the Harvest” program. This expenditure is very small compared to the overall budget, but I regret changes we made to this program.
To be clear, I support the “Share the Harvest” program wholeheartedly. Since 1992, Missouri deer hunters have donated excess venison to this innovative program through local meat processing facilities and that meat has been provided to food banks and families in need. Last year, hunters donated nearly 350,000 pounds of venison.
Share the Harvest was actually conceived by a private, nonprofit organization, the Conservation Federation of Missouri. This is the same organization that first envisioned our state Conservation Department in the 1930s and fought for its formation. Prior to this year, the Legislature allocated $150,000 annually to fund the Department of Conservation’s role in the Share the Harvest Program. The rest of the cost, $450,000, was borne by the Federation. The budget that was passed this year increases the department’s Share the Harvest appropriation to $300,000, but forbids any public money from going to the Conservation Federation. The program will now operate on half as much money. Does that mean there will only be half of the 350,000 pounds of food for the hungry? Also concerning is the fact that the language adopted by the budget conference committee now allows meat from trapped feral hogs to be distributed through the program.
To understand how that happened, you have to look at the budget process. Each year, the House of Representatives drafts 13 separate budgets bills, each one addressing the needs of different state agencies. Those proposals are then taken up by the Senate, which creates parallel versions of the same bills. If there are differences, they are ironed out in conference committees, with members from both bodies working toward a compromise.
House Bill 2006, contains the budget for the departments of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Conservation. Although it is one of the smaller state budget bills, I believe HB 2006 proved to be one of the most divisive. Despite the fact that the Department of Conservation receives no general revenue funds and has its own oversight commission, the language approved by the House imposed restrictions on how the agency could spend its money.
I’m sure a lot of us have been to a deer camp or joined the morning coffee counsel at the local diner when the Department of Conservation came up for debate. From where I stand, there’s always that one fellow who can’t find anything good to say about the department. I believe the budget that came over from the House would probably appeal to that critic. The House language specifically opposed bans on feral hog hunting and prohibited cooperation with federal authorities involved in the trapping of these invasive creatures. Worse, in my opinion, the House budget would have eliminated all of the Conservation Department’s “propaganda and advertising.” The “propaganda” that the House sought to defund includes the popular Missouri Conservationist magazine, publications aimed at children, the Conservation Department’s website and all other marketing materials.
I believe Missouri’s Conservation Department is one of the best, if not the best in the world. From my perspective, they have a difficult job, satisfying a diverse population that includes sportsman, nature lovers and environmentalists alike. I don’t agree with everything the department does and I’ve stood up to it at times, but I respect it and believe their people do a fantastic job for the citizens of our state. Fortunately, my Senate colleagues seemed to agree, and we were able to remove most of the changes from the House version of the budget. The one sticking point during conference committee negotiations was the Share the Harvest program.
I held my ground during conference committee negotiations, and was rather vocal arguing against changes to the Share the Harvest program. I insisted the House changes actually increased the cost to taxpayers, while eliminating private donations to a worthwhile program. In the end, I was told the deal was done, and a compromise had been reached. I refused to sign the conference report, but did vote for the overall budget.
In my opinion, the Legislature made a bad decision. I saw no good reason to change the Share the Harvest program, and I believe it will suffer because we did. I’m particularly concerned that feral hog meat may make it into our food supply. These are disgusting creatures, known to carry brucellosis, pseudorabies, tularemia and other diseases. Meat from Share the Harvest often ends up on the tables of senior citizens and other low-income Missourians who rely on the program for affordable protein. I believe it was misguided to allow meat from feral hogs to be distributed by Share the Harvest. I’m all for killing feral hogs, and if you want to privately eat their meat, that’s fine, but it should not be served to our most vulnerable.
My hope is that the governor can find some way to undo our decision. Short of that, I encourage everyone to ask their local representative how they stood on this issue. If you disagree with their position, let them know.
Out of an abundance of caution, Senate offices remain closed. Although we will not be available for visitors, you may contact us by email or phone. Please don’t hesitate to contact my Capitol office at 573-751-1882.