The biggest winner on the ballot Tuesday wasn’t one of the candidates. It was Amendment 1, the proposal to set aside some $10 billion in tax money over the next 20 years, to be used for purchasing environmentally sensitive land and protecting wildlife and water resources.
The measure passed with the support of 75 percent of voters, and in effect creates the largest state-based conservation initiative in United States history. Backers say the money could be spent to protect the state’s ailing springs, to restore the Everglades or to preserve land that’s important for a variety of species.
So far, though, state Department of Environmental Protection officials have no idea what they’re going to do with all that money when it takes effect next July.
“It just passed last night,” DEP press secretary Tiffany Cowie said Wednesday. “We’re going to have to look into it. We don’t have anything on the table.”
The next step, according to backers of the amendment, is for the Legislature to pass a bill to outline how to implement the program — and that’s where things could get hairy.
“The Legislature could do really good or really weird with it,” said Charles Pattison of 1000 Friends of Florida.
The big challenge is “to make sure the money doesn’t get shuffled away into things that look like they benefit the environment but don’t,” said Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida. He promised that environmental activists will go to court if necessary to protect what the public wanted.
Backers want to make sure that lawmakers don’t use the money for such things as paying to help homeowners who are on leaky septic tanks get hooked up to sewer systems, Draper said. They want to make sure the legislators “aren’t looking at Amendment 1 as a cash box to buy Florida out of its failure to regulate water pollution,” he said.
Florida once led the nation in environmental land purchases with programs named Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever, both of which were financed using taxes on real estate transactions, known as documentary stamps or “doc stamps” for short.
However, in recent years the Legislature sharply curtailed the money for land buying, funneling it into the state’s general revenue fund instead. In his first year in office Gov. Rick Scott cut it out completely.
Scott’s administration then spent the past three years dismantling the DEP division in charge of assessing and acquiring environmental land, according to former DEP employees. Their funding was cut, their staffing numbers were trimmed, and their focus was shifted away from buying property to trying to get rid of it, they said.
The DEP proposed selling off hundreds of parcels of surplus parks and preserves to finance more land-buying. The list of potential surplus properties created such an uproar that the Scott administration scuttled the idea without selling a single one.
Two months ago, as part of his re-election campaign, Scott unveiled a proposal to spend $150 million a year to revive Florida’s popular land-buying program. However, he did not say where he planned to get the money, and he did not endorse passage of Amendment 1 — which then won far more votes than he did.
Amendment 1 was designed to put the doc stamp money back into Florida’s land-buying program and guarantee it will stay directed to that cause no matter what.
Backers of the amendment started building support more than a year ago, rounding up signatures to get it on the 2014 ballot. They needed at least 683,000 signatures from 14 of the state’s 27 congressional districts.
By January they had collected 686,000 verified petition signatures from 15 of the districts, well beyond what was needed.
The next step was to short-circuit any opposition.
“We worked to build a broad coalition,” ensuring it would be a non-partisan issue, said Will Abberger of Florida’s Land and Water Legacy, the consortium of groups that took the lead in pushing Amendment 1.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce and other business groups announced they opposed Amendment 1. But after backers of the measure met with them, Draper said, “they ended up staying out of it. They never put any money into opposing it.”
Now that the amendment has passed by such a wide margin, its backers are hopeful that its tremendous popularity and bipartisan support will make it immune to any legislative double-dealing.
“Our state leaders, who have been busy starving and dismantling environmental programs for years at the behest of corporate polluters, should take notice of this very clear message from the public they are elected to serve,” said David Guest of Earthjustice, a member of the coalition. “The public wants Florida’s environment protected. ”
Contact Craig Pittman at email@example.com. Follow @craigtimes.