Two years after Florida voters overwhelmingly endorsed a trust fund expected to raise $10 billion over two decades to save the state’s stalled conservation efforts, lawmakers are again proposing spending a big chunk of it on more mundane matters like risk management insurance.
In twin bills that lawmakers will hammer out this week in Tallahassee, only a fraction of the $880 million allocated under the Amendment 1 constitutional measure is slotted for conserving new land. Instead, lawmakers divvied up the money to cover salaries —including paychecks for the entire staff of the state’s forestry service — and shifted much of the costs covered by the state’s general fund to the trust.
In addition to human resources and expenses, lawmakers also propose using $20 million to treat sewage sludge in central Florida and $25 million for a wastewater treatment plant in the Keys.
This thing has been turned on its head.
Will Abberger, finance director for The Trust For Public Land.
“To take existing agency operations historically funded out of the general fund and now shift them over to Amendment 1 was not the intent,” said Will Abberger, the finance director for The Trust For Public Land, who helped craft the ballot language in 2014. “This thing has been turned on its head.”
Amendment 1 was supposed to set aside 33 percent of taxes from real estate deals for buying and conserving land and depositing it in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, a decades old trust established for land stewardship. Leading up to the 2014 referendum, backers sold the measure to voters as a pledge to spend the money on protecting natural areas and keeping pollution out of its waters.
But last year, the state spent just $50 million on lands, with lawmakers saying the cost of fighting wildfires, providing insurance and controlling pollution on privately owned land fell under the guidelines for spending Amendment 1 money.
If there’s an incongruity in the public perception, it’s the organizing groups that misled the public.
Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers
Legislators say that’s because backers told them the money was intended to cover the cost of existing programs, not just purchase and manage new lands.
“The advocates who organized Amendment 1 purposely focused their campaign on acquisition,” said Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, who co-sponsored a proposal that sets aside at least $200 million for Everglades restoration. “If there’s an incongruity in the public perception, it’s the organizing groups that misled the public.”
As proof, Caldwell provided a response to written questions from legislators saying there was “no legal reason” why Amendment 1 money could not be used for operating expenses for programs tied to conservation.
“They were saying we want to guarantee a place for conservation in the budget. They were saying we want a light touch,” said Caldwell.
But in a lawsuit filed in Leon County last year by the Florida Wildlife Federation and other groups demanding last year’s spending be returned to the trust, environmentalists say whatever backers told lawmakers is irrelevant. What matters is what more than 75 percent of voters endorsed — the amendment’s summary and title, “Water and Land Conservation - Dedicates funds to acquire and restore Florida conservation and recreation lands.”
“Although voters could obtain the full text of Amendment 1, it was not on the ballot,” the lawsuit says. “The Title and Summary are what the voters overwhelmingly adopted.”
While the referendum met little resistance on its way to the ballot box — the Florida Chamber of Commerce made a late pitch to derail it — once it passed, dispute over how money is spent has been bitter. Last year, the Everglades Trust, the lobbying arm of the Everglades Foundation, mounted a nasty fight to pressure lawmakers into using the money to buy land from sugar growers, airing television spots accusing the legislature of a “bait and switch” and staging a concert headlined by Jimmy Buffett. The state once considered the land crucial to Everglades Restoration but plans fell apart with the economic downtown.
This year, lawmakers agreed to carve out at least $200 million for Everglades Restoration, a deal that made Everglades activists happy but split the environmental community after the Everglades Foundation and Audubon Florida stayed quiet on a controversial water bill that sailed through the first week of this year’s session. The bill included few of the tough measures environmentalists said were needed to protect the state’s water supply from big agriculture, development and Central Florida water bottlers.
“Everyone wants to see the Everglades restored,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters. “That’s a good start. Now we have to worry about the rest of the 75 percent.”
Under the spending plans, the Senate set aside just $45.2 Million for land acquisition, she said, while the House is proposing far less, $27.7 million, but only for land related to Everglades restoration. (Caldwell said the amount is in the House is closer to $108 million if you include money to pay farmers to keep farming and other water projects.) Moncrief also found lawmakers largely shifted costs traditionally paid out of the general fund into the trust. The Department of Agriculture and Consumers Services would get about 94 percent of its budget for water coordination from the trust, compared to an average of 46 percent over the last five years, she said.
“The numbers demonstrate that they are using Amendment 1 funds (and other trust funds) to pay for base operations while freeing up [general revenue money] to spend on whatever other things they want to spend it on,” she said in an email.
About $155 million proposed for salaries would also cover positions somewhat removed from land management. More than $9 million would go to the Department of Environmental Protection’s administrative staff and $6.5 million to Technology and Information Services. Other proposals include $2.5 million for risk management insurance and more than $770,000 in human resource costs in various departments.
“Both of those things have a direct nexus to the people who are managing the property,” Caldwell said.
But David Guest, the Earthjustice attorney representing environmentalists, said the ballot made no mention of using money for existing programs and only says the trust can be used to acquire, restore, improve and manage lands.
Guest says legislators are playing a shell game with trust money, using it to fund things otherwise covered by general taxes and then giving businesses a tax break.
“They’re taking the excess money, approximately $800 million this year, and using that for a tax break,” he said.
After the amendment passed, Guest said lawmakers collapsed a number of trusts — which more clearly spelled out spending — into the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to cover the flow of money.
“They did two things,” he said. “They misappropriated the money. That was part A. And part B was covering all your tracks.”