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Monday, Nov 12, 2018
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Editorial: Right direction on conservation funding

Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s budget proposal gives lawmakers a clear direction to follow both on the Everglades and Amendment 1.

The governor proposes a $5 billion plan for the restoring the Everglades, with $150 million going to the River of Grass this year.

His spending plan would use about a quarter or more of the funds generated by Amendment 1 each year, and that is precisely the kind of conservation spending the constitutional amendment was intended to cover.

Lawmakers, who have been discussing how to spend the additional revenue generated by the measure, should, like Scott, comply with voters’ intent and use it to improve resource protection.

Amendment 1 was, by far, the biggest vote getter in November, winning the support of 75 percent of voters. It needed only 60 percent to become law.

Environmental groups resorted to the constitutional referendum after the state virtually gutted land preservation efforts.

The amendment mandates one-third of the state’s documentary stamp tax revenues be used for conservation purposes and should raise about $700 million a year. It did not raise taxes, and its requirements will sunset after 20 years.

Now voters need to watch closely to ensure the Legislature does not abuse Amendment 1 dollars as it did lottery money, which it used to fund basic education needs, and free up general revenue dollars, rather than enhancing school funding as the lottery amendment intended.

There should be no such corruption of Amendment 1 dollars.

It was intended to improve resource protection. It was not intended to build sewage systems in far-flung subdivisions or fund other infrastructure needs created by poor planning.

As Eric Draper, executive director of Florida Audubon, said, “This should not be used as a bailout for bad development.”

The amendment spells clearly that Amendment 1 dollars should be spent on buying and managing land to protect wildlife habitat, rivers, lakes, streams and springs and land that recharges the underground aquifer. It can be spent on beaches and shores, trails, parks and urban open space. It can also be used for historic or geologic sites.

It specifically names Everglades restoration as an appropriate expense.

The amendment also provides the state plenty of flexibility in its conservation efforts.

For instance, it allows the state to buy conservation easements on ranches and other agricultural land, which protect valuable wildlife habitat and aquifer recharge lands from development, but allows the continued use of the land.

Spent correctly, Amendment 1 should allow Florida to save its valuable resources even as rapid growth returns.

Scott initially slashed environmental funding but has since demonstrated a growing commitment to resource protection.

He now recognizes that conservation spending also is an investment in Florida’s economic growth.

As he said when announcing his Everglades proposal:

“Florida has an abundance of natural resources that help create a foundation for our growing economy, whether it is driving our state’s tourism industry or providing a great quality of life that has attracted families to our state for generations.”

Lawmakers should show similar appreciation for Florida’s singular natural riches.

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