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Parks, Water & Soil Tax

September 06, 1995
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - A coalition of agricultural and environmental organizations have launched a statewide petition campaign to extend a 1/10 cent state park sales tax. If voters do not renew the tax by Nov. 1998, 85 percent of the funding for state parks will expire.

With no tax, "there would have to be some drastic changes made," said Sue Holst, division information officer for the State Parks Division. "We're counting on the voters of Missouri to help us get it passed."

Currently, the tax generates $50-52 million in revenues annually. The money is divided equally between state parks and soil conservation efforts.

The Citizens' Committee for Soil, Water, and State Parks is spearheading a petition drive to put the initiative on the ballot in November 1996. The committee was started in 1984, but "really pulled together" in 1988 to get the tax on the ballot, said Estil Fretwell, lobbyist for the Missouri Farm Bureau and a member of the committee.

The committee's goal is to collect 180,000 signatures by July 5, 1996 - the deadline for the November ballot.

The tax then needs a majority approval by the voters to be renewed for another 10 years.

Last spring, the legislature considered a tax-extension proposal. Although the House passed the idea, it stalled in the Senate where questions were raised about distributing the money among various state and local interests.

Some urban-area legislators complained their areas got little benefit from the tax.

"We introduced legislation last year that would have doubled the tax," said Dave Ostlund, executive director of the Missouri Parks and Recreation Association.

That revenue would have been used for funding urban areas.

"Primarily there was interest from urban legislators (mostly from St. Louis) who wanted to find additional funding for storm water control and urban parks," Deirdre Hirner of the Missouri Conservation Federation said.

Some St. Louis and Kansas City legislators have proposed redividing the tax to include storm water and local parks.

"I would have supported changing the distribution mechanism," Sen. Franc Flotron, R-St. Louis County. And Flotron warned that without changing the distribution, it could face strong urban opposition.

With an organized campaign from the urban areas, Flotron said "it would be real easy to kill it."

However, according to Hunter, the money from the current tax would not be enough to solve the storm water problem, and would greatly damage the state park system.

She added, "We do agree that urban storm water and local parks need some kind of assistance. But not at the cost of state parks and soil and water conservation programs. That's why we're involved with the initiative petition - to protect the integrity of those two programs."

According to Ostlund, approximately 60 to 67 percent of the money generated by the tax comes from urban areas. "They aren't getting near that percentage returned to them," Ostlund said. "The city of St. Louis hasn't received one penny."

Although St. Louis County contains three state park sites and two historic sites, only one of those is in the city of St. Louis - the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site.

The Missouri Parks and Recreation Association has been supportive of the tax renewal in the past. But now they argue the soil and water conservation situation has changed.

"Our organization has been involved with the Citizens' Committee since 1984 and 1988, but we're concerned that these other needs may need to be met," Ostlund said. The association's executive board has not officially taken a position on the petition effort, but Ostlund said that "the omission of local parks [from the tax] would be a concern for them."

But Ostlund said he agrees about the tax's importance to the life of Missouri's state parks. "We realize the sales tax is almost the entire funding source for our state park system," he said. "Our organization is really concerned that state parks continue to be funded at adequate levels."

There are 79 state parks and historic sites in Missouri, covering 133,000 acres of land.

Fretwell said that Missouri's state park system is one of the best in the nation. "We recognize this and we think the voters recognize that fact too.'

In order for voters to approve the tax, the petition must get 125,000 valid signatures.

"It [the petition] has broad support in the state, as represented by the broad coalition," Fretwell said.

But Ostlund said there is much opposition to the renewal of the tax without allocation for urban areas. He said that "St. Louis would actively oppose a straight renewal."

In 1988, Missouri voters approved the original tax by 69 percent.

The committee circulating the petitions is composed of a wide range of organizations: Audubon Society, Soil Conservation Society, Missouri Farm Bureau, Missouri Conservation Federation, Missouri Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Missouri Parks Association, Missouri Land Improvement Contractors, and Sierra Club.