Amendment 1 intent in jeopardy, backers say

Jeff Burlew, Tallahassee Democrat

When environmental leaders across the state decided to push for a constitutional amendment generating billions to buy conservation lands, one of their key goals was to replenish the Florida Forever fund.

Under Florida Forever and its forerunner, Preservation 2000, the state purchased 2.5 million acres of environmentally sensitive land, including rare-species habitat, floodplains and fragile coastline, protecting them in perpetuity from development.

But Florida Forever, approved in 1999 and envisioned to raise $300 million a year for land acquisition, hasn't been fully funded since the 2008 legislative session. In 2009, after the recession hit and doc-stamp revenue from real-estate sales plummeted, lawmakers put no money into the fund. Since 2008, the program saw a 97-percent drop in funding.

Florida's Water & Land Legacy, made up of more than a dozen groups, formed in part because of flagging Florida Forever support. The coalition gathered enough petitions to put Amendment 1 on ballots last year, and voters approved it overwhelmingly, with 75 percent of the vote.

The amendment, which sets aside 33 percent of doc-stamp revenue over 20 years to acquire and restore conservation land, is expected to raise three-quarters of a billion dollars in its first year alone. But with a week to go before the regular session ends, Amendment 1 supporters have deep concern over House and Senate plans to implement it.

The House has proposed only $8 million for Florida Forever, the Senate $15 million, though land purchases are included elsewhere in the budget. Scott has proposed $100 million; Amendment 1 sponsors want $155 million.

"Based on what we know today, it appears to be a betrayal of what the voters wanted to happen," said Jim Stevenson of Tallahassee, former chief naturalist for Florida's state parks Florida Springs Task Force chair. "I'm very disappointed in the Legislature for not following the voters' wishes."

The constitutional amendment expressly forbids the commingling of dollars deposited into the Land Acquisition Trust Fund with general revenue. But Scott and the House and Senate have proposed using between 20 and 30 percent of Amendment 1 dollars for existing state-agency expenses.

Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, who wants to fully fund Florida Forever, said last week that if at least half of Amendment 1 dollars don't go toward land acquisition, the debate will have to be settled in court.

"You can't just sweep (agency) operational costs out and and then back-fill it with Amendment 1 money," Altman said. "That's a bait and switch. That's a Ponzi scheme. And that will never work. I don't think any court in the land can uphold that."

It's unclear where funding levels will land — this year's legislative session, which was set to end Friday, has been thrown into chaos by a standoff between the House and Senate over Medicaid expansion and funding of safety-net hospitals.

"What it's beginning to look more and more like is the lottery," said Will Abberger, chair of the Amendment 1 coalition and director of conservation finance for The Trust for Public Land. "When Floridians voted to approve the state lottery, it was sold on providing additional funding for education. And the Legislature used those lottery funds to replace existing education funds. So far, it looks like that's what they're doing with Amendment 1."

Jessica Blackband, a Florida State University senior who helped collect petitions for Amendment 1, said Florida has a long list of land that should be purchased to protect the ecological integrity of the state.

"The voters have clearly spoken, and our representatives in the Legislature have an obligation to honor that vote," she said.

One option coalition members support is bonding Amendment 1 proceeds, which would increase dollars available for land by a factor of about 11. Bonding would allow for the purchase of land south of Lake Okeechobee owned by U.S. Sugar seen as key to restoring the Everglades, which supplies drinking water to millions in South Florida. The state has an option to buy the land, which could cost $350 million or more, but it expires in October.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the only way to make a meaningful purchase of land south of the lake is to bond. But he pointed out that Scott has expressed opposition to bonding and the House plan has no bonding for land acquisition. Lee himself said he doesn't know whether he supports it.

"I'm not sure we want to go out in the first year and blow a bunch of money and throw it at a bunch of projects without going through a process that identifies the best scientific use for these limited resources," he said. "So while I would support conceptually trying to advance projects if they're timely, I'm concerned that we're going to, in a rush to judgment, maybe spend money unwisely."

Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, said bonding makes good business sense now because of low interest rates and that it would allow for full funding of Florida Forever and purchase of the Everglades land. He vowed to keep pushing for appropriate use of Amendment 1 dollars.

"We're going to keep working to get it right," Fuller said. "We're not going to quit. Florida's going to have a much brighter future if we have strong, robust conservation programs with Florida Forever and the Everglades as centerpieces of that policy."

The Florida Forever list includes roughly three dozen projects in the Big Bend, including the Wakulla Springs Protection Zone, located in Wakulla and Leon counties. Since the late 1990s, the state has spent more than $7 million buying more than 4,000 acres around the threatened springs, and another 3,000 acres are slated for purchase.

Abberger said that without significant land purchases, springs will continue to be degraded and polluted, the Indian River Lagoon will not be restored, clean drinking water won't be available for South Florida and property values and tourism will see sharp declines.

"Over the next 20 years, which is the life of Amendment 1, Florida's population is projected to grow from 18 million to 25 million," he said. "So this is really the end game for land conservation in Florida. If we don't buy it and conserve it and protect it, over the next 20 years it's going to be lost forever to development."

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