In 1983 Missouri was losing over 10 tons of topsoil per acre annually due to erosion. That’s one inch of topsoil off each acre every 15 years. Missouri’s soil erosion rate was the second worst in the nation, exceeded only by Tennessee.
At that same time, Missouri’s state park system was experiencing a funding crisis. Federal funding was drying up, resulting in the state parks receiving half of the funding they had been budgeted in the late ’70s.
Two major problems found a solution during the Missouri General Assembly’s 1983 legislative session. HJR 21 created a 1/10 cent sales tax, half of which was earmarked to support Missouri’s state park system and half to fund soil and water conservation efforts.
HJR 21 was approved by the General Assembly that year, and because it was a constitutional amendment, it needed voter approval. In August 1984, Missouri voters did just that by a narrow margin.
Because it contained a five-year sunset clause, legislators were debating the issue again in 1988 but could not come to an agreement on the wording. So a group of agricultural and environmental organizations working as a coalition called the Citizens Committee for Soil, Water and State Parks launched a successful initiative petition effort gathering over 200,000 signatures to put the issue back before voters in November of that year. This time the parks and soils sales tax was approved with over two-thirds of the vote.
The constitutional amendment has always contained a sunset clause, so after another successful initiative petition effort by the Citizens Committee in 1996, Missouri voters approved the tax once again by more than a two-to-one margin. In 2006, the Missouri General Assembly agreed to language on the constitutional amendment, and 70.8% of the voters renewed it (the largest percentage yet).
The parks and soils sales tax is now automatically placed before voters every 10 years for renewal, and that is why Constitutional Amendment #1 is on the November 8, 2016, ballot.
So what has happened to soil erosion and our state parks system since 1983? More than 229,000 soil and water conservation cost share practices have been implemented on agricultural land, cutting soil erosion in half and saving at least 179 million tons of soil since the program’s inception. Today, we have one of the finest park systems in the nation that attracts 19 million visitors at Missouri’s 88 state parks and historic sites. Both programs together add $1.8 billion to our economy.
Why renew the tax again? Well, soil erosion is still a problem. More cost-share practices need to be constructed on farmland, and current structures such as terraces, some of which are 20 and 30 years old, have to be maintained to remain effective. State parks funding from the tax accounts for about 75% of the of the park system’s budget, with the rest coming from concessions, fees, etc. Admittance to state parks, however, remains free to the public.
Other states ask with envy how we in Missouri were able to develop and receive voter approval for the parks and soils sales tax program. It goes back to the fact that legitimate needs in Missouri were identified by legislators; agricultural, environmental and other organizations have set aside any differences they may have and work together through the Citizens Committee to support the program; the program remains accountable to the public with a 10-year renewal clause; and Missourians can see and experience first-hand tangible benefits.
On November 8 Missouri voters are urged to support our state park system and soil and water conservation efforts by voting “yes” on Constitutional Amendment #1. Let’s keep a good thing going!