On this the 45th Earth Day, one would think it time for special celebration in Florida. Last November, 75 percent of Florida’s voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 1 establishing in Florida’s Constitution a dedicated source of funding for the purchase of conservation lands. But sadly, celebration is not in order.
Amendment 1 supporters around the state have been writing essays and editorials to voice their outrage that the Legislature is ignoring their will. Amendment 1 was written primarily to restore funding to wonderful Florida Forever, historically budgeted at $300 million a year, which bought carefully prioritized lands for their environmental and state historical value. The editorial writers have been nice people, and mostly extoll the virtues of land acquisition and Florida Forever. Well, 75 percent of those who voted already got that.
It's the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott who don’t get it. Let’s be clear about one thing — they are carrying out exactly what they started in 2011, and are counting on our passivity to use Amendment 1 to further their goals.
Here’s how: In 2011, Gov. Scott launched his tax-cutting frenzy by deleting over $700 million from the budget of the five Water Management Districts, with $520 million specifically from the South Florida Water Management District. At that time, the governor knew full well that this district had the capacity to make the U.S. Sugar purchase. The Caloosahatchee River and its estuaries, the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon, would be recovering right now if the governor had not slashed the districts’ budgets.
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Just to complete that picture, remember that the water-management districts (except for Northwest) have adequate ad valorem taxing authority (by virtue of a second ignored Constitutional Amendment) to fund water conservation and supply projects, including land acquisition and to help local governments. But, disgracefully, the governor and Legislature balked in 2011 at the thought of the districts independently funding their own regional projects and further capped their taxing ability.
This year, for the first time, they grudgingly realize that Florida is running out of clean water. They are scrambling for general revenue and other taxing sources and fighting each other to fund the same projects that could have been completed with district tax dollars, which would have cost the average household the price of a pizza or two, if they had not meddled with the will of the people.
Now the citizens have voted to fund Florida Forever. But, even before Amendment 1 passed, bean counters at the Legislature and in the Governor’s Office were figuring out how to replace existing program funding with Amendment 1 dollars.
In doing so, they’re disregarding a long list of outstanding environmental land acquisition projects that should be funded by Amendment 1. And, they are even proposing that more than $200 million of Amendment 1 funds be spent on agency operations and regulatory expenses. What an insult to me and the other 4.2 million who voted for Amendment 1.
This sham has been politically facilitated by Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government. Sen. Hays is an extremist. He does not like the government to own land for conservation purposes. To justify this, he says that there is no plan for land acquisition, when the Natural Areas Inventory and the State Acquisition and Restoration Council have such a plan. He also says that the state has not adequately funded management of those lands. Sen. Hays has been in the Legislature for 11 years, so whose fault is that?
My, how things have changed. In 2006, when the opportunity arose to buy the Babcock Ranch property in Southwest Florida, the Legislature appropriated an additional $310 million, on top of fully funding Florida Forever at $300 million. Oddly enough, Sen. Hays, then a member of the Florida House, voted in favor of that purchase.
In a way, we fell right into their hands. Amendment 1, as it stands now, will be used to fund water and wastewater projects and to clean up industrial agriculture’s mess, which shows little corporate responsibility on the part of the landowners. And that brings us to the third ignored constitutional amendment, the one that required growers around the Everglades to pay to clean up their pollution. Now they want to shift costs to the Amendment 1 pot.
When the dust settles after the session, and we comb through hundreds of pages of budget, and we come to fully understand this shell game, we will come to only one conclusion: Our governor and legislators are steadfast in believing that voters may tell them what to do through constitutional amendments, but they sure don’t have to listen.
Victoria Tschinkel is vice chair of 1000 Friends of Florida and was secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for former Gov. Bob Graham.