Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Oh those silly voters, thinking they were funding wildlife habitat

The 4.24 million Floridians who approved Amendment 1 last fall only thought they were voting to provide a funding source for the acquisition of conservation land.

Silly, silly voters. The suits in Tallahassee know we can’t be trusted to know our own minds.

Our legislative leadership was able to divine (with the help of lobbyists) that what we really wanted — the 75 percent of the Florida electorate who voted yes — was a nice chunk of money to bail out a major campaign contributor.

Regular folks, naive about the ways of the Capitol, assumed that they had enacted a constitutional amendment that would force legislators to divert $700 million the state collects each year from real estate transactions into buying parkland and wildlife habitat.

Last week, environmental groups that had campaigned for Amendment 1 were aghast at reports coming out of the House and Senate budget negotiations that only $55 million had been allocated for the purchase of new public land.

As it turned out, $55 million was wildly optimistic. The budget agreement set for a final vote on Friday sets aside a piddling $17.4 million for Florida Forever conservation land purchases.

Instead, as Craig Pittman and Michael Auslen of the Tampa Bay Times reported, that great pile of Amendment 1 money is going to pay for items that normally would have been funded out of the regular budget. For stuff like park maintenance.

But the legislators, in cynical disregard of their constituents’ intent, earmarked $13.65 million of the Amendment 1 money to bail out a water storage project that auditors from the South Florida Water Management District had found was wildly out of whack in terms of cost effectiveness.

That’s just $3.75 million less than what Florida Forever will be getting for new land purchases.

The $13.65 million will bail out agricultural outfits like Alico, with major Florida holdings in citrus, ranching, farming and the very lucrative operations known as “water farming.” Alico is the largest of landowners around Lake Okeechobee paid to store water behind earth berms, meant to keep it from exacerbating the problems of the polluted estuaries of the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. As the Tampa Bay Times reported, a 57-page auditor’s report last year found these water farming contracts cost the public 10 times more if these than storage projects had been built on public land. Water farming is a massive boondoggle.

Which might have been beside the point, given that the South Florida Water Management District had run out of money to fund water farming anyway. But all that Florida Forever money presented the likes of Alico another fat funding source.

If nothing else, the Amendment 1 fiasco offers Floridians a stark lesson in modern civics. Buying out wildlife habitats may have received 4.24 million votes but critters don’t write checks.

Alico distributed some $165,000 in campaign contributions to state legislators last year and more than $200,000 to lawmakers so far this year, according to the Florida Department of State website, including tens of thousands going to political action committees run by legislative leaders. Last year, Alico had 16 lobbyists working the Legislature.

The Tampa Bay Times reported that before last year’s session, when the water ranching projects were similarly in need of state funding, Alico took key legislators on a four-hour helicopter ride around Lake Okeechobee.

That’s what we voters, innocent in the ways of Tallahassee, failed to grasp: 4.24 million ballots cast in favor of buying up natural habitat might be vaguely influential, but — wow — a free helicopter ride. That’s hard to beat.