For a lot of Florida voters and a lot of environmentalists, one of the big disappointments of this chaotic legislative session is the apparent fate of Amendment 1. That's the ballot initiative that makes three-quarters of a billion dollars available every year to buy and protect sensitive lands. But it's a shopping trip the Legislature doesn't feel like making.
A constitutional amendment is just a broad statement of purpose. How it works in real life is determined by the Legislature. In this case, Amendment 1 set aside about $750 million dollars a year for land purchases from a state tax on real estate transactions. As budget talks began, amendment sponsors knew there would be special interests to appease. They were prepared for legislative chicanery that would misappropriate part of the money to existing expenses under some environmental pretense. All of that was built into their projections, which supposedly were a productive of legislative savvy and Tallahassee wisdom.
Aliki Moncrief, executive director of the Florida Water and Land Legacy, which united several environmental organizations to bring Amendment 1 to the 2014 ballot, began to count on a modest first-year land buying program of $155 million.
"It seemed reasonable," Moncrief recalls, "especially when we're talking about $750 million dedicated by Amendment One to acquire and restore conservation lands."
But then the budget proposals came out. Amendment backers were hoping for a first-year land-buying budget of $155 million but the Senate offered only $15 million and the House was willing to give only $8 million. The biggest line item in both chambers was nearly a quarter billion in salaries and agency operating expenses already covered in the general budget.
All told, concluded Moncrief, "That's thwarting the will of the voters."
And it was a pretty big and clearly expressed will. Amendment 1 passed with an unprecedented 75 percent of the vote, and the way it was respected by budget chiefs in the capitol amendment backers found maddening.
"Florida politicians are of the view that the constitution can be disregarded in cases where the decisions of the Florida voters are contrary to their political philosophies," fumed Tallahassee attorney David Guest, who manages the Florida office of the national environmental law firm, Earthjustice.
And which of the Legislature's philosophies was in play? According to Guest, it’s one that opposes public purchases of land to take them out of commerce and place them under conservation. "That extremist political view is clearly expressed in legislation that's about to be approved," Guest said.
State Sen. Alan Hays (R-Umatilla), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that developed the Amendment 1 spending proposal, was widely quoted during the legislative session as saying that the voters did not understand Amendment 1 and that Florida already has more conserved environmental lands than it can manage.
During the final subcommittee meeting, Sen. Thad Altman (R-Viera) accused Hays point-blank of violating the constitution and the will of the voters by short-changing the land purchase budget.
"Well, you know, that's open to interpretation," he said. "There were a lot of other things listed in that constitutional amendment other than land acquisition. I think it’s important that you and every other Floridian understand the state and the federal governments own for conservation purposes over 9,400,000 thousand acres of land. How much is enough?"
(You can hear the whole exchange between Hays and Altman at the 6:16 mark of this video.)
What voters saw on their ballots were the title and summary of the amendment, retorts Aliki Moncrief at the Florida Water and Land Legacy. "It says water and land conservation, dedicates funds to acquire and restore Florida conservation and recreation lands. So, if the budget does not dedicate funds to acquire at all, that's in direct conflict with what voters wanted," she said.
One of the goals of Amendment 1 was to resume the work of the previous environmental land buying programs called Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever. Between 1990 and 2008, the state spent as much as $300 million a year buying conservation lands. The programs were zeroed out in 2009 and there's been only a trickle of land buying since then.
Because of the Medicaid impasse, the Legislature is likely to adjourn May 1 and return later to pass a budget. Lawmakers will have time at home to hear from voters, and that gives Moncrief some hope. She figures time is on the side of Amendment 1.
"There are going to be elections coming up. The first round is in 2016, where voters are going to have an opportunity to take a look at this. So, yes, there's definitely time," she said.
But David Guest is less hopeful. He says Amendment 1 supporters understood there was an extent to which they would get burned in the Legislature, and they even prepared for it. But, he says, they did not prepare enough.
"They really thwarted this," he said of legislative budget makers. "They defeated it."