The biggest winner of the Nov. 4 election was Amendment 1. Not only was it the only one of three amendments on the ballot to pass, but it also passed with an incredible 75 percent of the vote. Voters sent a clear message about the strength of their support for water and land conservation and, in doing so, set the only true mandate of the election.
A constitutional amendment needs to receive 60 percent of the vote — a tough threshold to meet. Take, for example, the other statewide races: Gov. Rick Scott won re-election with just 48 percent of the vote and, while all three Cabinet officials easily won re-election, they each fell short of 60 percent.
Amendment 1 seemed to transcend partisan politics in an unusual way.
Ironically, while signaling their strong commitment to protecting Florida’s natural resources, voters also returned to office individuals whose actions led to the need for the constitutional amendment. Now we are dependent on those same individuals to implement it in the manner that was intended.
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Unfortunately, past history does not bode well for that to happen. Take, for example, the high-speed rail amendment that was later repealed, the class-size amendment whose implementation has been revised numerous times and underfunded, and the fair-district amendments that proponents argue were not adhered to. The redistricting maps are still being challenged in the courts.
A little history: We’ve been fortunate in Florida to have governors of both parties who supported environmental programs and funding. Democratic Gov. Bob Graham has long been heralded as an environmental champion. Preservation 2000 started under Republican Gov. Bob Martinez and was nurtured under Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles. Florida Forever prospered during the eight years under Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.
Then the national recession hit. To his credit, then Republican Gov. Charlie Crist managed to fully fund Florida Forever at $300 million his first two years in office, during the worst of the recession. But with the state budget facing a $6 billion shortfall, the Florida Legislature did not fund the program the last two years of Crist’s term.
During Scott’s first term as governor, environmental programs such as Florida Forever and Water Sustainability received little to no funding despite a much-improved economy. In fact, Gov. Scott vetoed the Florida Forever funding that the Legislature budgeted.
Despite rising state revenues, including the healthy growth in documentary-stamp collections, environmental funding was not restored. Disappointed natural resource advocates, frustrated by the inability to return to historical and reliable levels of funding, brought the issue to the voters.
After collecting signatures, clearing court review, placing the initiative on the ballot, raising money, leading the campaign and getting an incredible 75 percent of votes, is the hard part ending or just beginning?
The revenue projections are good. This year documentary stamp revenue is projected to be $1.8 billion, next year $1.98 billion and by 2020 $2.65 billion.
Amendment 1 requires 33 percent of net revenues of this excise tax to be placed in the Land Acquisition Trust fund and used to acquire, restore, improve and manage conservation lands. This year, after deducting the generous service charge and administrative fees, 33 percent of the net should equal approximately $597 million.
The Legislature should fully fund Florida Forever at $300 million and Water Sustainability at $100 million and use the remaining $197 million for Everglades restoration, springs protection and a healthy annual boost to our underfunded state park system for land-management and capital projects and maintenance.
It would be easy, but unwise, for the Legislature to slow down or circumvent the amendment’s intent. The budget-making process offers opportunities to disguise funding or to play shell games with environmental programs and funding.
Attempts to fund development, shift costs or move toward privatizing water could be disguised as new environmental programs. Voters should be on the lookout. Creative bookkeeping and increased administrative costs, service charges and trust fund transfers should be guarded against.
Gov. Scott campaigned on increasing environmental funding. Let’s give him the chance to prove it.