Florida lawmakers keep reaching deeper in their bag of excuses for their refusal to faithfully implement Amendment 1, which voters overwhelmingly passed last fall to ensure adequate conservation funding.
Some lawmakers claim the state doesn’t need to buy more land, which is nonsense, given that state officials have identified 2 million unprotected acres that should be saved.
The claim also ignores the fact that many of the acres to be protected would remain private property, with the state preserving aquifer recharge areas, river corridors and key wildlife habitat by acquiring the development rights. This allows cattle and other operations to continue, but prevents the land from being paved over.
Other lawmakers say the state should concentrate on managing the land it already owns, ignoring the amendment, which clearly provided for preservation and management.
Now there is talk among legislators about how the amendment’s sponsors emphasized it did not remove appropriation powers from lawmakers when making the case for the ballot initiative before the Florida Supreme Court.
It’s another maneuver in the continuing attempt to defy voters.
Amendment 1 clearly and appropriately gives lawmakers reasonable latitude in spending, as was made clear to the court. But the amendment’s language that was approved by the court and the supporting campaign also made clear the amendment’s goal is land conservation. It is not intended to pay park ranger salaries or other such expenses, as some propose.
The amendment requires one-third of the state’s existing documentary stamp tax revenues be used for protecting and managing lands. It is expected to generate about $700 million a year. The measure did not raise taxes, and sunsets after 20 years.
It won 75 percent of the vote in November because voters understood the need to safeguard Florida’s vanishing natural treasures, which an indifferent Legislature had largely neglected in recent years.
Voters had no trouble appreciating the importance of protecting springs, rivers, lakes, beaches and forests in the nation’s third-largest state, which is again experiencing rapid population growth. Indeed, a voter needed only to survey Florida’s landscape, where natural lands are constantly being bulldozed and water resources being degraded, to erase any doubts about the measure’s necessity.
Amendment 1 offered a way to protect Florida’s natural riches — and without cumbersome regulations. The state could simply buy — or purchase the development rights to — environmentally important tracts.
Landowners rights were protected. The state only buys from willing sellers. Moreover, the doc stamps already were being collected; there was no tax increase. The stamps traditionally had been used for environmental purposes, but recent Legislatures have retreated from the land preservation championed by former Govs. Bob Martinez and Jeb Bush.
Lawmakers seemed to take offense at voters’ remarkable support for the amendment, as if they resented voters getting involved.
Legislative leaders have continually belittled the Amendment 1 vote and sought to minimize the need for land preservation.
There can be debate about the amount of money that should go to buying land. Those involved in the campaign wanted $170 million to go to the Florida Forever land acquisition program this first year, but were not offended by Gov. Rick Scott’s call to start that funding at $100 million.
In contrast, the Legislature has minimized land conservation. The House at one time proposed $10 million for Florida Forever; that was revised to $33 million. The Senate offered $37 million. The numbers have been fluid, and lawmakers do point out land that purchases would take place under programs other than Florida Forever.
But lawmakers, so far, are not using Amendment 1 to significantly bolster the effort to preserve our endangered natural heritage.
With the special session beginning Monday, the Legislature still has a chance to right what would be a historic wrong.
Voters told lawmakers what they want. Legislators should respect their will and the democratic process.