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Document: Conservation Commission and Missouri Department of Conservation vs. Missouri Attorney General and Office of Administration

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The Missouri Department of Conservation and Conservation Commission filed a lawsuit Thursday against the state's Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Office of Administration Commissioner Sarah Steelman in a dispute over authority to spend revenue for conservation purposes.

The conservation bodies argue in the lawsuit filed in Cole County Circuit Court that Steelman has not certified payment from the Conservation Commission Fund for purchase in July of 510 acres of land in St. Clair County, to be an addition to the Linscomb Wildlife Area.

"The St. Clair County property contains 350 acres of one of Missouri's most imperiled habitats, the tallgrass prairie habitat," and has potential for additional restoration of three different types of prairie, according to the conservation bodies' lawsuit.

The purchase was to have been partially paid for with funds for prairie acquisition donated by the late Harry and Lina Berrier and held in the Conservation Commission Fund, and the closing date is set for Sept. 10.

The conservation bodies state Steelman has not certified payment because "during its last session, the General Assembly omitted language from HB 2019, a FY 2021 appropriation bill, that had appeared in such bills in prior years, which expressly stated that MDC could use funds from the Conservation Commission Fund for land acquisition."

The conservation bodies asked the court declare the General Assembly's description of permitted uses of commission fund monies was "superfluous" and the omission of explicit authority for the Conservation Commission to use funds to buy land did not alter the commission's constitutional authority.

Alternatively, the conservation bodies would accept the court declaring this year's appropriations bill's "implicit restriction" on the Conservation Commission's authority conflicted with the authority given to the commission by law.

It's also argued in the lawsuit the same issue jeopardizes the conservation bodies' ability to pay $743,000 in December to Missouri counties in lieu of property taxes. The Conservation Commission has made such payments annually to counties since 1980 for payments for private land the commission acquired after July 1, 1977.

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The conservation bodies request the court declare Conservation Commission Fund monies are available for county payments or that any restriction on that authority in this year's appropriations bill is in conflict with law.

According to the lawsuit, approximately 60.9 percent of the money in the Conservation Commission Fund comes from the state's conservation sales tax; 17.3 percent from permit revenues; 15.8 percent from federal reimbursements; and the rest from sales, rentals and other sources.

The lawsuit also notes the Conservation Commission has over the past 80 years acquired more than 800,000 acres of land through willing sellers and donations to protect and manage fish, forests and wildlife and to provide the opportunity for the public to use, enjoy and learn about those resources.

Schmitt is included as a defendant in the lawsuit because of his roles in "defending state statutes and with representing the interests of the state state in any proceeding or tribunal in which the state's interests are involved."

A spokesman said Thursday that Schmitt's office declined to comment on the lawsuit. A spokesman for OA also said the office declined to comment on the lawsuit.

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