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Columbia Missourian

Attorney general candidates criticize DNR in third debate

By Chris Dunn
October 21, 2008 | 8:32 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — The Missouri Natural Resources Department faced criticism from both attorney general candidates in their third general election debate, held in St. Louis.

Democratic candidate Chris Koster said the Natural Resources Department has not done its job of adequately regulating the environment, while Republican candidate Mike Gibbons said the relationship between the department and the attorney general's office needs to be repaired.

The candidates were answering a question about whether the Agricultural and Environmental Protection Division within the attorney general's office has been effective.

Koster criticized the Natural Resources Department for failing to establish and enforce stronger environmental regulations. He accused the department of acting in the interests of business. But the department's director charged that Koster did not understand the law.

"The DNR has fallen down on the job," Koster said. "They try to be good to business, and the old-time thing was that lax environmental regulation was good for business, and strong environmental regulation was bad for business. But that old-time thing has been completely discounted."

The result, Koster said, is an upswelling of citizen-powered environmental regulatory groups that are "stricter and much more organized than anything we've seen in the rest of the state."

"So now our agricultural industry -- the state's No. 1 industry -- is forced to face as many as 114 different regulatory structures as it tries to go about its business," Koster said. "Why did that occur? Because the Department of Natural Resources didn't do its job. The next attorney general has to drop the accelerator down on environmental prosecution."

However, the director of the Natural Resources Department said his department does not have the authority to enact new environmental policies.

"You would never know that Sen. Koster served in the legislature," said Doyle Childers, the department's director and a former GOP senator. "There are no laws that allow the DNR the authority to do this. What has to happen then is, the people have to find other ways of using the law to do what they want to do."

Gibbons said the relationship between the Natural Resources Department and the attorney general's office is much like that between the governor's office and the attorney general's office. He said the tension between the two government bodies would be harmful if it continues. He attributed the tension to the issue of legal practice within the Natural Resources Department.

"The Department of Natural Resources typically hires their own lawyer to represent their interests, the interests of the people, when in fact that really should be the attorney general's job," Gibbons said. "I don't know how it got to be to the point where the relationship deteriorated to this point, but I think it's a serious problem."

The Natural Resources Department does use its own attorney, despite the department's paying the attorney general's office for legal representation, Childers said.

Childers referred to the current Democratic attorney general's lawsuit against the Natural Resources Department's efforts to abandon the Katy Trail bridge in Boonville as a reason why the department hired its own lawyer.

"He was supposed to be representing us," Childers said. "It doesn't result in a great deal of respect or trust for the attorney general that's supposed to be representing the state."

If elected to the attorney general's office, Gibbons said he would repair relations with the Natural Resources Department.

"My objective, if I'm going to be attorney general, is to eliminate whatever tensions existed, to be on the same team, representing the interests of the people of Missouri, and do that much more effectively and aggressively than has been done," Gibbons said. "That's my knowledge on where the problem lies, and that's the problem I would seek to correct."

Childers said either candidate would be more effective than the current attorney general, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Nixon.

"You can just go on and on about things that this particular attorney general has done that has created a very bad situation," Childers said. "I think either candidate could do a better job than what's been going on in the past 12 years."

In a race between two candidates who belonged to the same political party until August 2007, encountering issues where they stand apart is infrequent.

However, another divisive topic brought up during the hourlong debate at Clayton High School involved shield laws. Shield laws exist in varying forms in 35 states, according to Judith Scott, who moderated the second debate and is executive director of the Three Rivers Community College Foundation. They allow journalists to refuse to identify their sources in court under some circumstances.

In the second such debate held in Poplar Bluff on Oct. 9, Gibbons said he would support a Missouri shield law except under pressing circumstances. On the other hand, Koster reinforced his long-time opposition to a Missouri shield law and argued that "if any other industry sought immunity from the courts, the media would be the first to cry foul."

Koster elaborated on his argument in Monday's debate, referring to a blurred line between professional and citizen journalism.

"If my mother opened up a political blog that had confidential sources from her neighborhood, for example, should she have special privileges from the court just like The New York Times has?" Koster said. "The answer to that question is no. Under our First Amendment, there is literally no way to divide between The New York Times and a blogger or a student newspaper, because all Constitutional privileges have to apply across the board."

A third divisive issue addressed in the debate was the Missouri nonpartisan court plan.

Developed in 1940, the plan — often called the Missouri Plan — establishes a nonpartisan procedure by which judges of the Missouri Supreme Court, trial courts in St. Louis and Kansas City and the three state appeals courts are selected and appointed. Legislation and ballot initiatives to alter the nonpartisan court plan have been frequent in recent years.

Most recently, Republican gubernatorial candidate Kenny Hulshof proposed amendments to the plan that would alter the makeup of the commission that chooses and presents three nominees to the governor for appointment.

Koster reiterated his belief that the nonpartisan court plan should remain as it is, and that the recently proposed changes are an attempt to inject politics into the appointment procedure.

Gibbons, who said he supports the nonpartisan court plan for its merits as a nonpartisan judicial selection procedure, also said that improvements could be made.

"Holding fast to the original Missouri Plan doesn't allow us to look at how we can make it better," he said.