State Politics

Voters suggest Amendment 1 funds were supposed to be spent acquiring land

John Hendershot was one of 4.2 million Floridians who voted for Amendment 1, helping it pass by an overwhelming majority in November.

For him, there was no mistaking what the 75-word ballot measure meant.

“I was convinced that the purpose was to set aside money primarily for environmental lands acquisition purchases and to preserve and protect environmental lands,” said Hendershot, a 61-year-old Tampa psychologist. “It was intended to add to, and not to replace, existing funds that were already intended for environmental purposes.”

But when state lawmakers released the Senate and House proposed budgets last week, the intent of Amendment 1 was suddenly as murky as the Everglades after a rainstorm.

Both budgets set aside a mere $2 million for the Florida Forever program, which was created in 1999 to fund public land acquisition and was initially authorized to spend $300 million a year.

The proposed amount, an 84 percent cut from this year’s budget and $118 million less than what Gov. Rick Scott was offering, has exasperated sponsors of Amendment 1 who had hoped to return to pre-recession Florida’s $300 million spending levels for land acquisition.

“The Legislature greatly exceeded my expectations for mischief,” said Clay Henderson, an Orlando attorney and former president of the Florida Audubon Society, who helped write the amendment. “There’s no question about what the emphasis was. It was Florida Forever. We were clear about that.”

Lawmakers insist that they are fulfilling the wishes of voters by expanding the scope of the amendment. Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, says he reads the intent of the amendment more broadly so that it includes a full range of suitable purposes, such as local government water infrastructure projects and maintenance of existing state lands.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, who chaired the Senate committee that allocated Amendment 1 money, said his first priority is to follow the intent of voters. But he said the state already has more than enough land, 9.5 million acres, and that it already has trouble maintaining it.

“We don’t want to be known as the hoarding land state,” Hays said. “We need to be known as good stewards of the land we own.”

Henderson said lawmakers have gone astray in reinterpreting the intent of voters. The Senate budget uses Amendment 1 money to pay the salaries of state workers for the parks and forest services, Florida Fish and Wildlife enforcement officers and employees at the Division of Historical Resources and Cultural Affairs, which only frees up money for lawmakers in the state’s general fund.

“It’s the Lottery two-step,” he said. “They’re using Amendment 1 to pay for existing services.”

Voters approved the Florida Lottery in 1987 with language specifying that proceeds would be used for education. But lawmakers diverted money that had been paying for education to other purposes and the lottery made up the difference. Henderson said that’s what’s happening with Amendment 1 revenue.

Unlike the Lottery, Amendment 1 isn’t new revenue. It’s existing revenue from documentary stamps. Voters simply designated that 33 percent of it pay for acquiring, restoring, improving and managing conservation lands.

Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, and Sen. Arthenia Joyner, filed amendments to the Senate’s $80.4 billion budget that would steer more money to Florida Forever. But both withdrew the amendments on Wednesday after getting assurances from Appropriations Chair Tom Lee, R-Brandon, that negotiations to increase Florida Forever funding are just beginning.

“This is an evolving issue,” Lee said.

Henderson said he was encouraged that lawmakers were “stepping back”.

“This was the first day that these questions about Amendment 1 were asked, so we’ll wait and see,” he said when if asked if his group is considering legal action. “We’re hoping cooler heads will prevail, so we’ll watch this carefully.”

Voters like Hendershot, the Tampa psychologist, will be watching, too.

“The individuals we elected to govern the state appear to be marching in lockstep, in the opposite direction, contrary to the will of the majority of voters,” said Hendershot. “Whether or not the majority of voters will pay attention to this unfortunate turn of events and vote accordingly in the future remains to be seen.”

Contact Michael Van Sickler at Follow @mikevansickler.

Amendment One

Here’s the ballot summary that voters saw in overwhelmingly approving Amendment 1 last November:

“Funds the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands including wetlands and forests; fish and wildlife habitat; lands protecting water resources and drinking water sources, including the Everglades, and the water quality of rivers, lakes, and streams; beaches and shores; outdoor recreational lands; working farms and ranches; and historic or geologic sites, by dedicating 33 percent of net revenues from the existing excise tax on documents for 20 years.”