Legislature Still Cool on Buying More Land

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Legislature still cool on buying land through Amendment 1

By Lloyd Dunkelberger

GateHouse Media Services

Published: Saturday, June 13, 2015 at 7:24 p.m.

Last Modified: Saturday, June 13, 2015 at 7:24 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — Environmental advocates saw the passage of Amendment 1 by 75 percent of Florida’s voters last November as a convincing endorsement for state land-buying programs like Florida Forever, which once had $300 million a year to acquire environmentally important tracts.Facts

About Amendment 1

The Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment is known as Amendment 1 because of its placement on the November 2014 general election ballot.

It was approved by 75 percent of the voters.

Advocates said it was aimed at reviving key environmental programs that have declined in recent years, including Florida Forever, the state’s major land-buying program that once had $300 million a year but has nearly dwindled to a halt in recent years.

It was supported by a broad range of environmental groups and civic organizations, including Audubon Florida, Everglades Foundation, Florida Defenders of the Environment, Florida Education Association, the League of Women Voters of Florida and former governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.

The amendment requires the state to spend one-third of the annual real estate tax collections on environmental programs. It is estimated that should amount to around $740 million in the new budget.

But as lawmakers head into the final week of their special session, it is clear that they are not viewing the Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment as a priority in the new state budget.

“I think we’re going to be lucky to see $100 million on land acquisition generally,” said Eric Draper, a lobbyist for Florida Audubon.

Audubon was part of an environmental coalition that was asking lawmakers to put $155 million into Florida Forever. Gov. Rick Scott recommended $100 million.

But as the House and Senate headed into their final budget negotiations, the Senate had $37 million for Florida Forever and the House was at $15 million. The land acquisition totals will be boosted by other initiatives, including programs for protecting springs, rural land easements, the Kissimmee River and Lake Apopka.

Lawmakers will also provide funding for Everglades restoration, although likely well short of the $150 million that Gov. Scott called for. And overall land-buying total won’t be anywhere close to the $300 million that Florida Forever once had.

A last bid by the House to boost environmental land acquisition by borrowing money through state bonds was rejected by the Senate.

“We’re far from where we need to be,” said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge.

Lawmakers say they are meeting the requirements of Amendment 1, which called for the state to dedicate a third of the annual tax on real estate transactions to environmental programs. It should work out to about $740 million in spending in the new budget year, which begins July 1.

But working within that constitutional framework, some key legislative leaders are emphasizing other programs, like projects for water supply or stormwater treatment, over the land acquisition.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, who oversees the budgets for the state environmental agencies, said he supports using the Amendment 1 funding for programs “other than purchasing more acreage.”

“I would suspect that the majority of the Legislature feels that we have enough land already with the exception of some specific property that is necessary for springs protection, wildlife corridors or beach projects,” Hays said, saying roughly 10 million acres or a third of the state is under public ownership.

“As far as I’m concerned, every acre of land that is purchased from this point forward needs to have a specific reason why it’s necessary to buy it, not just nice to have, but necessary to buy it,” Hays said.

Draper said Hays’ conservation land figure is inflated by large military bases in the Panhandle and vast stretches of the Everglades in South Florida that are underwater, arguing that many important environmental properties deserve protection in a state with 19 million residents.

“We also have a lot of libraries. It doesn’t mean because we have a lot of libraries that we have too many, and just because we have a lot of parks doesn’t mean we have too many parks,” Draper said.

Draper said voters were aware of the consequences of the amendment, noting its first words reference the “Land Acquisition Trust Fund.”

“I don’t think the voters were voting for something other than land acquisition because the amendment said land acquisition,” Draper said. “The legislators who saying we have too much land are simply substituting a personal opinion for the decision of the voters.”

Debate over how the Legislature met its obligations under Amendment 1 could spill over into a post-session court challenge, although Draper said his group does not plan any lawsuits. But he said he could see some challenges by others on issues like using Amendment 1 money to fund state agency expenses.

Draper said the environmental advocates will renew their message to the voters that Amendment 1 was designed to boost Florida’s acquisition of environmentally critical land.

“What we will do is continue to organize public and political support for land acquisition being an environmental strategy, and somehow we have to get past those members of the Legislature who have substituted their personal and ideological values for the voters,” Draper said.

 

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