JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A southern Missouri lawmaker said Thursday that he doesn’t want to get rid of a popular program that lets hunters donate venison to the hungry in the state. In fact, he said he wants to expand it.
Rep. Robert Ross, a Republican from Yukon in Texas County, had recently proposed an amendment that reduced Missouri Department of Conservation funding for the Share the Harvest program from around $150,000 annually to $1.
Some area meat processors, who participate in the program, said the money is important to help them cover their costs.
Last week, Ross said in a statement that the amendment was made in a subcommittee. Ross has been critical of the Missouri Department of Conservation as well as the nonprofit Conservation Federation of Missouri, which is a separate and unrelated group.
Ross claimed in his statement that the Missouri Department of Conservation "misuses our tax dollars in multiple ways," but he did not cite any examples. He also wrote that department Director Sarah Parker-Pauley "and her team of three taxpayer funded lobbyists ... spend their days and our dollars walking the halls of the Capitol, testifying against any measure which would bring accountability to the department or empower the citizens of Missouri.
“(The department) sending our tax dollars through a liberal front group (Conservation Federation of Missouri), which is controlled, manipulated, and utilized for political activism by (the department), is the wrong way to fund these programs,” Ross wrote.
Ross said in an interview Thursday that he intends to add the funding back when the full budget committee reviews the department’s appropriations.
Missouri hunters donated 348,535 pounds of venison to Share the Harvest during the last deer season, including 6,795 whole deer, according to a news release from the Missouri Department of Conservation. They’ve donated more than 4 million pounds of venison since the program started in 1992. Meat processors around the state receive the deer, prepare the venison and give the packages of meat to local food banks, food pantries and other organizations that get it out to those in need.
“As a sportsman, I fully support the Share the Harvest program,” Ross said Thursday. “What I do not support is that funding being siphoned off through the Conservation Federation of Missouri.”
The Missouri Department of Conservation's deputy director, Aaron Jeffries, said the program is run through the Conservation Federation of Missouri because that agency started it and that many groups — including Bass Pro Shops, the Missouri chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, Midway USA and the Missouri Food Bank Association — help fund it.
Tyler Schwartze said Thursday that his group is largely a pass-through organization that uses money donated for Share the Harvest to reimburse the more than 100 meat processors in the state that package the venison.
One Carthage meat processor told the Globe earlier this week that his business handled 102 deer for Share the Harvest last year, and while meat processors often eat part of the cost as their way of helping the cause, because of the labor involved “and as many deer as we do,” money from the Missouri Department of Conservation and other sponsors is important to offset their expenses.
The department could run the program, Jeffries said Thursday, but he added that he didn’t see why a government agency would do it when a private organization has been running it effectively for almost 30 years.
When asked Thursday about the characterization by Ross as a "front group," Schwartze said that the Conservation Federation of Missouri has an an "84-year rich outdoor history preserving our wildlife and natural resources through advocacy, education and partnerships such as Share the Harvest."
The federation collects a 15 percent administrative fee on the money the Missouri Department of Conservation donates, passing the rest on for the program, he said, and as a nonprofit, it raises almost all of its money from memberships, sponsorships, business partnerships and fundraising events.
"The administrative fees received from MDC are less than 2 percent of our total annual revenue," Schwartze said.
Ross said he would guarantee that Share the Harvest and another program that lost funding, Operation Game Thief — Missouri’s hotline to report poaching — would be funded in 2021.
He also said he wants to expand Share the Harvest to include meat from feral hogs, which he said the department is trapping, killing and leaving to rot in southern Missouri.
“That is a great, nutritious source of food that could be used in the Share the Harvest program,” Ross said.
However, Jeffries said meat from wild hogs can carry diseases. Humans can be infected with brucellosis if they eat undercooked meat from an infected wild hog, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"You are providing protein for some families in need," he said of deer. "You are not getting that with feral hogs."
The budget process is in its early stages, with representatives on the budget committee working through each department’s budget in subcommittees, making amendments to add priorities they’d like to see in the final budget. Next, it goes to the full budget committee, where Ross said he intends to restore the funding. Once they pass the full budget committee, the budget bills go to the floor of the House for debate, more amendments and approval. The Senate goes through a similar process separately, and the two chambers have to reconcile their different budgets before a final budget is approved and sent to the governor, who can veto individual line items.