Editorial: Second chance

Gainesville Sun

Florida House members bailed on the legislative session before passing a budget, but their inability to perform their most important duty isn’t all bad news.

Their failure to approve a budget has left Amendment 1 funding still to be set. Hopefully the pause before the Legislature reconvenes in a special session will give lawmakers time to boost funding for land acquisition above the disgraceful levels that had been considered.

An overwhelming 75 percent of voters approved Amendment 1 in the fall, only to see lawmakers deviate from its clear purpose of dedicating more funding toward land conservation. The latest House and Senate budgets would spend less than $20 million for the purchase of parks and wildlife habitat under the Florida Forever program.

The amount is paltry when considering that Amendment 1 requires about $750 million to be spent on land and water conservation in its first year — and that still only equates to less than 1 percent of the state’s $80 billion budget.

Many priority areas for conservation under Florida Forever remain unprotected, including land around the state’s first-magnitude springs. Other projects in our region include preserving land that links Newnans Lake, Lochloosa Lake, Orange Lake and Paynes Prairie.

These kind of projects provide benefits for water quantity and quality. The depleted and polluted condition of our springs serves as a warning about the aquifer that provides our drinking water supply.

Some lawmakers claim the state lacks a need to protect additional land from development. State Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, infamously said that Florida shouldn’t be known as the “hoarding-land state.”

But Florida has returned to a growth rate of more than 350,000 people per year and is losing at least 75,000 acres of rural land annually, according to Tom Hoctor, director of the University of Florida’s Center for Landscape Conservation Planning.

Hoctor wrote in the Tampa Bay Times that conserving land on the Florida Forever list would mean an additional 2 million acres of land is protected — but much more is needed to reach conservation goals.

There are signs at least some lawmakers are listening. The News Service of Florida reported last week that Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican whose district include Alachua County, and Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, are calling for their chamber to boost funding for land acquisition to $40 million or more. The money could be bonded to raise $500 million for land purchases.

Bradley reminded his fellow senators that North Florida “has a lot of springs where land purchases are going to be a part of the overall strategy in making sure those can be preserved for all time.”

House members failed to complete their only constitutionally mandated duty by walking out of the session early.

But they might have given lawmakers a second chance to do right by the state and its voters by spending more of Amendment 1 funding on its main purpose: land conservation critical to protecting the aquifer and our water supply.

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