It takes a special kind of arrogance to completely dismiss the directive of 75 percent of voters.
But that is what the Florida Legislature is doing. Voters last fall overwhelmingly passed Amendment 1, which requires more conservation spending, particularly on land acquisition that has been virtually abandoned in recent years. Although the amendment mentioned other uses, including land management, its text — and the campaign on behalf of the constitutional amendment — made clear the priority was preservation.
Yet lawmakers are spitefully ignoring citizens’ desire that one-third of the state’s existing documentary stamp tax revenue on real estate transactions be used for conservation.
The amendment does not raise taxes and sunsets after 20 years. It is expected to generate about $700 million a year.
Sen. Alan Hays, an Umatilla Republican, is among the legislative leaders successfully blocking substantial funding for land preservation. In the past Hays has sought to ban any additional public land purchases, and now looks to be more concerned with his agenda than voters.’
He says that about 25 percent — 9.4 million acres — of Florida land is already in public ownership.
“My question is, how much is enough?” he asks. It matters little to Hays that voters think differently.
The answer is simple. About 2 million acres are targeted for acquisition under the Florida Forever program that seeks to buy tracts of particular environmental value.
This would increase the amount of publicly owned land by about 5 percent, hardly unreasonable, particularly given the state’s rapid growth and imperiled resources.
Too, many new land purchases would come in the form of conservation easements, where development rights would be bought but the land would remain in private hands.
Buying Florida Forever lands would protect beaches and springs, estuaries and forests. It would safeguard the surface and groundwater essential to our drinking water supply. It would allow wilderness areas to be linked by wildlife corridors, enabling Florida to preserve its natural heritage even as the nation’s third-most populated state continues to add to its 20 million residents.
All this will make Florida a more desirable place to live and visit.
It should be recognized that the 2 million acres is almost surely an unreachable goal. Florida Forever buys only from willing sellers, and the purchase price must be reasonable. Nobody wants funds spent carelessly. It is unrealistic to think the state can save every tract worthy of preservation. It should not be unrealistic to expect lawmakers to respect the law — and voters’ will.
The people of Florida knew what they were doing. They see rapid development changing the landscape — as well as increasing water demands and pollution threats — daily and understand the necessity of acting before special places are forever lost.
One leader in Tallahassee who has shown regard for voters is Gov. Rick Scott. His budget includes $100 million for Amendment 1 land purchases, not as much as the $170 million environmentalists wanted but a reasonable amount, particularly for the program’s first year.
Scott might put an end to the Legislature’s Amendment 1 sabotage by vowing to veto a budget that doesn’t fund additional land conservation. Scott knows Florida’s economic appeal is tied to its natural assets.
Will Abberger, the campaign manager for Florida’s Water and Land Legacy, which pushed Amendment 1, says: “The next 20 years — the life of Amendment 1 — will be the ‘end game’ for land conservation in Florida. We will either buy it, or it will be developed.”
If the view of Hays and other like-minded lawmakers prevails, little will be bought, and development will claim much of what remains of Florida’s natural wonders.
We hope Gov. Scott acts decisively to prevent that from happening.