With the election about a month away, we’re all getting our fill of political ads, newspaper articles, direct mail pieces and poll results on various candidates running for office. There are also several constitutional amendments on the November ballot.
There are various ways the Florida Constitution can be amended. Two of the most common are through citizen initiatives or through legislatively introduced amendments. In both cases, the amendments must receive 60 percent of the votes in an election in order to change our constitution.
The first two amendments on November’s ballot were placed there through the hard work of citizens who jumped through the costly and labor-intensive hurdles set up to make changing the Constitution difficult.
It’s important for voters to understand the amendments and to be prepared to vote on them prior to voting. The language can be lengthy and complex, so it’s best to do a little homework.
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Allow me to make the case for a Yes vote on the proposed “Water and Land Conservation” amendment, which appears as Amendment One.
Amendment One would set aside 33 percent of an existing tax and dedicate those dollars to be used for conservation purposes only. This would include land acquisition and management, ensuring a safe and adequate supply of drinking water, restoring the Everglades, protecting our springs, lakes, rivers and coastal waters, providing outdoor recreational activities and preserving our natural areas and wildlife habitat.
Many come to Florida to visit our beautiful beaches, to fish in our lakes, rivers and coastal areas, and to enjoy our 170 or so state parks and other public lands. Tourism is one of our most important industries, and our nature-based resources play a major role in attracting visitors — as well as revenues and jobs.
Our agricultural industry relies on a plentiful supply of water to grow crops and raise livestock. Collecting water during wet weather for use during times of drought is another potential use of these funds.
And let’s be clear — this is an existing tax, not a new tax or an increase in an existing tax. The documentary stamp tax is paid when real estate is sold. As the housing market improves, more revenue is generated, with a third of this one revenue source dedicated to conservation. How much could this be? Estimates say this would generate $10 billion over 20 years or roughly $500 million a year. Of course, that would fluctuate with the strength of the housing market, a fiscally responsible way to fund.
Let’s put these numbers in perspective.
▪ First, this year’s state budget was more than $77 billion. Isn’t the protection of our natural resources worth at least $500 million, which is less than one percent of the total budget?
▪ Second, under current law the Legislature is supposed to be funding the Florida Forever program at $300 million and the Water Sustainability Act at $100 million annually — but has failed to do so.
Florida Forever was fully funded over the eight years under Gov. Jeb Bush and for the first two years under Gov. Charlie Crist. When the recession hit, every major budget area was cut, but as the economy improved and revenues grew, funding for environmental programs was not restored.
Our state parks have $400 million in land management needs and have only received $15 million or so for each of the last few years. Everglades restoration and springs protection will take billions of dollars over the next 20 years.
Floridians who had been patient during the lean times became fearful that the funding might remain at anemic levels, putting our resources at great risk. They collected hundreds of thousands of signatures, paid to have them verified, defended the amendment language before the Florida Supreme Court and are now leading the effort to get 60 percent of the vote required to change the Constitution.
For those who argue this doesn’t belong in the Constitution, I ask, if not this, what? What could be more vital to our very survival than water? And if the Legislature won’t fund the very programs it enacted at the levels it specified, then this might be the only way to ensure a steady but flexible funding level that rises and falls with the economy.
Surely our quality of life is worth one percent of our state budget. A YES vote on Amendment One benefits all Floridians.