When voters approved Amendment 1 to the state Constitution last year, they gave Florida a magnificent opportunity not only to preserve our clean drinking water and natural resources, but to add to the state’s bounty, as well.
Apparently, though, state legislators didn’t get the message. Even though the amendment was approved by a resounding majority of 75 percent, creating a huge pot of money drawn from existing revenue sources — there was no tax-increase provision — lawmakers are finding ingenious ways to avoid fulfilling the voters’ clear demand.
The purpose of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund created by the amendment — as the title so plainly makes clear — is to finance or refinance...the acquisition and improvement of land and water areas. Most of the ballot language was devoted to describing lands that qualified for state purchase. The provision specifically mentions “lands in the Everglades Agricultural Area and the Everglades Protection Area.”
Couldn’t be clearer, right? Well, not so fast.
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Even though the measure created a $700 million pot of money (about $10 billion over 25 years) that taxpayers want to use for conservation and acquisition, legislators have made clear they are going to spend only a small fraction of that imminent windfall on buying land to protect. Proposals mentioned from the House and Senate this week amount to just $26 million and $57 million, respectively, to buy land.
Most of the money will instead be diverted to other uses. Mostly, it will offset cuts in spending on the environment, like maintaining state park facilities, previously supported by other trust funds that are being eliminated.
Floridians are all too familiar with this kind of bait-and-switch. It is similar to the diversion of funds for education created by the state lottery in the 1980s. Instead of being used to supplement education funding, which Floridians thought they were voting for, the pool of money created by lottery revenues supplanted the education funding, which was then used for other purposes.
Lawmakers are apparently relying on a provision in Amendment 1 that allows money to be used for “management, restoration of natural systems and the enhancement of public access or recreational enjoyment of conservation lands.”
Fair enough, but they’ve got the tail wagging the dog.
Most of the money should be used for land acquisition and directly related costs, not to pay for environmental management and other administrative costs historically funded by other means or general revenue.
At last word, the House and Senate were mired in a dispute over whether to resort to bonding — selling state IOUs to raise more money — for land acquisition.
Obviously, it’s better to buy now while land prices are relatively cheap. And there is absolutely no need to float bonds; the money is already there to buy land — it should not be diverted for other purposes.
There is a bit of good news here. Some $40 million, possibly more, may be used for Everglades restoration, a major priority for South Florida. But much more has simply vanished into the larger state budget.
Meanwhile, the old Florida Forever program, which once funded environmental land buys, has about 200 unfinished projects.
If lawmakers actually listened to the voters, that would be a good place to start implementing Amendment 1 instead of diverting the money elsewhere.