Florida’s environmental health is in play. That can be good news, or bad. Let the parsing begin.
When a large majority of Florida voters approved Amendment 1 in November, they bought the promise that the estimated $10 billion raised during its 20-year lifespan would be used for land conservation. The constitutional amendment was a last-ditch effort to take the worthy goal of environmental protection directly to Floridians, since their representatives in the Legislature siphoned off funds from the Florida Forever pool of funds dedicated to land preservation.
At the time, during the Great Recession, no funding stream was safe in order to patch holes in the state budget. However, preservation advocates — with the Trust for Public Land taking the lead in this case — were not optimistic that lawmakers would restore the funds now that state finances are in the black. Good guess.
Now that billions are all but assured to be raised — from at least 33 percent of net revenue from documentary-stamp taxes — the governor, lawmakers and advocates should ensure that the funds go to the greatest conservation priorities, that they are used as intended and that there’s a plan, long-range and comprehensive.
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With less than a week to go before the start of the legislative session, there remains much contention over how the funds should be used. “Conservation” seems open to interpretation.
Gov. Rick Scott’s budget sets aside $150 million for Everglades projects, $50 million for springs restoration and another $150 million for other conservation projects. He proposes another $177 million to pay off debt from previous conservation projects. So far, so good.
However, the governor gets into dicier territory with his proposal to spend $63 million for state-agency operations — the Department of Environmental Protection, the five water districts and state parks department, among them. He would also spend $7.6 million to pay for state park patrol, in addition to $17.5 million of amendment funds for a wastewater treatment project in the Keys.
Are all of these needy? Probably, given past cuts. But are the Amendment 1 funds that the governor seeks to allocate for these agencies being used to enhance their budgets, or are they replacing general-revenue money that would go to them anyway? Floridians with long memories have seen such sleight of hand before. Officials’ promises that a deluge of revenue from Florida’s Lottery would bolster education funds were broken almost from the get-go. Fortunately, a bipartisan group of Miami-Dade lawmakers said that it would “push back” against replacement.
Still, it’s worth determining whether sending additional funding to the appropriate agencies could enhance the state’s conservation efforts. But the direct connection must be made first.
Sen. President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said that they have put together a joint plan for the upcoming session that includes developing a statewide policy for water and natural resources.
They should consider that just a start. Amendment 1 funding demands long-range planning with the state and conservationists at the same table hashing out priorities, reaching consensus and building in accountability and transparency, which, unfortunately, have deteriorated miserably during Mr. Scott’s tenure.
With $10 billion in play, Floridians don’t want to be fooled again.