I’ve had my issues with the Missouri Department of Conservation. But for the most part, it’s the one agency of state government that you can usually rely on to work in a nonpartisan way, with a clear mission focus and a modest ability to disregard the momentary winds of opinion. Take, for example, the department’s recent decision to create a bear hunting season in the state, which an overwhelming majority of the public comments disagreed with. If the department needed to bend to public opinion, it wouldn’t have shrugged off the public comments with such ease.
This nonpartisan emphasis, naturally, has been a burr under the saddle of the state legislature for decades. The idea that an agency of government could stand apart from politics is anathema to them. That agency could be such a source of influence, such a repository of bureaucratic jobs to fill, such a wellspring of votes! And so it has tried, again and again, to grab control over the Conservation Department, which is protected in its structure by the state constitution. Never mind the fact that Missouri’s Conservation Department is just about the only aspect of state government that is envied elsewhere.
The latest effort began as a bill sponsored by the representative from my hometown, and would have changed the membership of the Missouri Conservation Commission from appointed to elected, thus politicizing it completely. The representative claimed that members would run on a nonpartisan basis, but we know how “nonpartisan” that works in practice. So the new plan, which has passed a House committee, would insert both the House and the Senate into the nomination process, assuring that new appointments would have to pass the political scrutiny of legislative leaders before taking their positions. Even in this dressed-up version, it’s still such an atrociously bad idea that the House speaker had to pack the committee with a bunch of extra members to get the proposal to pass.
Every session, I think to myself that the Missouri Legislature cannot possibly come up with a more reactionary, hare-brained, backward set of proposals than they did in the previous session, and every session they prove me wrong. This year’s crop looks to continue that trend, with proposals to make it easier for people to evade vaccination requirements and to hamstring local health departments (in the middle of a pandemic!) at the top of the list. A fair number of these ideas end up on the scrap heap, thank goodness, but enough of them get through to make one despair whether Missouri will ever become the moderate, sensible, “Show-Me” state I remember from my younger days.