JEFFERSON CITY - The governing bodies of University of Missouri Extension districts might soon be able to levy local taxes to fund additional programs under legislation now pending in the Missouri House.
A bill, sponsored by Rep. Bill Reiboldt, R-Neosho, would allow individual UM System extension councils to form a district of at least two counties, allowing the councils to combine money for extension programs. The UM System operates the extension programs as a part of a federally-mandated mission to provide access to science-based research throughout the state.
Under the legislation, the new districts would have a governing body made up of appointed representatives from the individual councils and would have the authority to place extension taxing measures on a ballot before citizens. The governing body for a district would then determine the tax rate needed to create enough revenue to fund extension programs by Sept. 1 of each year.
The additional revenue from the voter-approved tax would help fund staffing needs, supplies, equipment and maintenance of the county's property. State Extension Council Chairman H.C. Russell said in past years, some Missouri counties have reduced extension program funding by as much as 90 percent.
The House Agriculture Policy Committee approved the measure by a 13-0 vote Tuesday. Committee chairman Rep. Bill Reiboldt, R-Neosho, said there is no current formal way for extension councils to work together across county lines so that resources and decisions can be shared. He said the extension programs need the option to work together efficiently and place taxing measures before voters when needed.
"Any kind of increase has to go to the vote of the people," Reiboldt said.
Reiboldt, who previously served on the Newton county extension council, also said a similar process has been tried in 26 other states and has worked well.
Vice Provost and Director of Cooperative Extension Michael Ouart said it is fortunate in Missouri that most members of the extension councils are elected with just a few cases of them being appointed because this isn't done in every state.
"The ownership of extension at the local level is strong, " Ouart said. " That's really what this bill's about." Ouart said this bill gives counties the option to strengthen extension programs at the local level but realizes some counties won't ever exercise the option to form districts.
Rep. Linda Black, D-Desloge, said she was concerned with the inconsistency that districts would be created after it's voted on by council members but for a council to withdraw from a district it would depend on a vote by citizens. Black said she would like for the council members to vote on if a council can withdraw from a district or not.
Extension County Council Coordinator Tony Delong said that when a new district is created, there is funding that goes to that district. If a council wants to leave then it must be determined which county gets those funds that were once shared.
"You have to have someone be sure that the money doesn't go to the wrong people," Delong said. "There's some legal issues from past situations of why you need to have a process for that to happen so that the citizens are protected."
No one opposed the bill during Tuesday's hearing. A similar bill passed in the House last year but died in the Senate. Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, sponsored last year's UM extension bill and said this year's bill is almost identical to the previous one. Pearce said a senator who was against last year's bill is no longer in the General Assembly due to term limits.
"There were some people in the Senate who are no longer there who didn't appreciate extension," Pearce said. "There was some anti-University of Missouri sentiment as well."
Sen. Dan Brown, R- Rolla, said when higher education funds "dry up," extension programs usually end up losing money. Brown said he is usually against tax increases, but he supports this bill because counties will get to vote on whether to raise taxes or not
Reiboldt's bill now heads to the House for a full-chamber debate. Pearce said the Senate has it's own version of the bill, which was heard in committee last week. Pearce said he hopes it will pass out of the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.