Lawmakers at loggerheads over buying land for conservation

While lawmakers continue to grapple over how to spend more than $700 million directed by taxpayers for conservation, they’ve made one point clear: Florida will spend just a fraction of that pending windfall on buying land to protect.

The current proposals from the House and Senate include $26.8 million and $57 million, respectively, on land buys.

That may seem like a big gap to bridge, but to some lawmakers and environmentalists, the real problem is that both numbers are far too low. Eric Draper, executive director of the Florida Audubon Society, said even the Senate’s request amounts to a few square miles of new land for conservation.

“We fall way, way, way short,” said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, who is among the camp urging more than $300 million a year be spent on buying land to preserve. “There’s a strong public mandate.”

Altman is referring to Amendment 1, the land and water conservation measure approved by 75 percent of voters last November, directing state money specifically “to acquire and restore Florida conservation and recreation lands.”

But what appears to be a straightforward edict from voters has become mired in legislative politics and fueled disagreement over how best to spend the estimated $730 million in Amendment 1 money the next fiscal year.

More could be spent to buy land this year if the state borrows money. But the idea, which has been embraced by the House, has been rejected by many in the Senate.

“The House is very interested in and supportive of bonding as it goes forward,” House natural resources budget chair Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, said Sunday. “Money’s cheap today.”

Environmentalists and Democrats agree. Rep. Kristin Jacobs, the top House Democrat on the natural resources budget committee, says bonding could help the state buy lots of land and start protecting it sooner.

The original House budget included $205 million of bonding-funded land buys.

“The longer we wait to buy the land, the more it’s going to be, the higher the interest rates will be,” Jacobs, D-Fort Lauderdale, said.

But Senate budget chair Tom Lee, R-Brandon, says bonding would be a fiscally irresponsible and hypocritical move for the Legislature to make, especially after the House voted down a plan to accept federal Medicaid dollars just last week.

“There is a preponderance of members of the Legislature that don’t want to draw down federal money to ameliorate problems in our budget, but they want to whip out a credit card conveniently and blow a lot of money in the environment,” Lee said. “It’s been our perspective that it’s somewhat hypocritical and perhaps inconsistent.”

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, the top Senator on Amendment 1 spending, said he’s going to continue to fight against issuing bonds, which he called a “four-letter word” in a budget conference this weekend.

On Monday, Altman took Hays to task during a public meeting, suggesting that the Senate budget proposal doesn’t respect the will of the people.

Following the meeting Hays clarified his position: “Borrowing money is a last resort for necessary things, not nice-to-have things.”

Such a stark divide with just over a week and a half remaining in special session means the Amendment 1 and conservation issues will almost certainly be left up to Lee and House budget chair Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, to decide.

But unless the Senate agrees to finance new land purchases with bonds, it will be hard to find much more money in the budget to spend on acquiring land for conservation, Draper said.

Other than that and a few other big-ticket items — including $20 million to $40 million for Everglades restoration and as much as $40 million to restore springs — much of the funds set aside by Amendment 1 will replace spending the state has for years used on infrastructure and agencies.

Both the House and Senate budgets call for hundreds of millions of budget items to be moved from other funds and merged into the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, which was set up to handle Amendment 1. Groups like the Audubon Society and Florida’s Water and Land Legacy have said that’s not how the constitutional amendment was intended to be implemented.

Environmentalists further argue that no money generated by Amendment 1 should be spent on things like state park facilities ($15 million to $20 million) or the operation of existing water protection and wetlands programs ($5 million to $7 million).

“Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Amendment 1 funding has kind of vanished into the bigger budget,” Draper said. “It’s very hard to track down now.”

If the Legislature fails to boost acquisition beyond current plans, some supporters of Amendment 1 believe the issue will head to the courts for resolution.