Out of session's ashes rises hope for environment

Tallahassee Democrat, Paula Dockery

This has been an awful legislative session for Florida’s environment. But it wasn’t supposed to be that way. The future looked so bright just a few months ago.

After years of the Legislature shortchanging popular environmental programs like Florida Forever and Everglades restoration, citizens that care about protecting and managing our natural resources put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would guarantee those programs would be funded.

It passed overwhelmingly with an incredible 75 percent of the vote. To put that in perspective, Gov. Rick Scott was re-elected with a mere 49 percent of the vote.

The amendment changed the Florida Constitution to commit hundreds of millions of dollars for conservation programs for land acquisition and management annually. It set a specific percentage of an existing real estate tax to be applied to underfunded programs like Florida Forever, Everglades restoration and springs protection.

This year that documentary stamp revenue is estimated to be $750 million. While a lot of money, it equates to less than one percent of the state’s $80 billion budget.

It would take $300 million to fully fund Florida Forever, the state’s extremely popular land acquisition, restoration and recreation program, leaving $450 million for a plethora of other environmental purposes, including management of the lands already in public ownership.

It shouldn’t be a heavy lift or a complicated task for the Legislature to implement the voters’ mandate. But legislators decided early on to ignore the will of the pesky voters who had the gall to restore the environmental funding they had been withholding for years.

Instead of resuming the funding for environmental policy and programs that are already law, they created separate but equally offensive implementing bills. Legislators insisted they had wide latitude in using the newly dedicated pot of money. In the House plan, smug legislators threw a paltry $10 million to Florida Forever while the Senate started with $2 million and increased the funding to $17 million.

With $750 million dedicated to these types of programs and three-quarters of the voters affirming it in our state Constitution, both chambers brazenly and petulantly defied the voters.

Not all legislators were practicing the art of deception. There were some honest brokers. Many of the Democrats argued for respecting the voters’ wishes and doing what’s right for the environment. State Sen. Thad Altman stands out as the strongest Republican voice for fully funding Florida Forever and using the remainder of the dedicated funding in accordance with the constitutional intent.

Those who pushed for the amendment feared this was a redo of the lottery shell game when the Legislature used lottery funds to replace existing education funds. The House and Senate have proposed nearly 30 percent of the Amendment One dollars for existing state agency expenses.

And it isn’t because the Legislature is hurting for money. Just as the doc stamp revenue is increasing, other state revenues are as well. State economists estimated a billion-dollar budget surplus. Legislators should be able to implement Amendment One as intended, increase education funding and give some money back to Floridians in tax cuts.

To add insult to injury, the House pushed a major overhaul of water policy that was written by developers, business groups and agriculture interests like U.S. Sugar — virtually everyone who could financially benefit. Curiously left out of the discussions were environmental experts whose goal would be protecting the resource, the aquifer and the ecosystem.

Additionally, the Legislature rolled out a long-awaited springs protection bill that more closely resembles a public works project. While the plan has merit, the funds for it should not come from Amendment One funding

And the latest slap in the face undermines the mission of our state parks. Three of our former state parks directors, who dedicated a combined 38 years leading our parks to prominence, wrote an opinion piece warning park enthusiasts of the legislators’ latest endeavor to bring multiple uses to the parks. These uses would be primarily agricultural and include cattle grazing and timbering.

This is not a new idea — it has been rejected several times in the past but looked like it was gaining traction this year. What’s truly disturbing is that these proposals are coming from the very people who are responsible for the welfare of the state parks.

So it would be fair to say that those who care about our environment, our parks, our natural resources and our quality of life have seen their dream turn into a nightmare over the past few months. It has indeed been a tough session for the environment.

Actually, it’s been an awful session all around.

The House and Senate, both controlled by the same party, have had a difficult time seeing eye-to-eye on several big issues. And with a major battle over Medicaid expansion keeping them from agreeing on the parameters of a budget deal, it became apparent the session was not going to end on time.

With three and a half days left in session, the House abruptly adjourned. Since the budget is the one and only bill the Legislature must pass, legislators will be coming back before the next fiscal year starts on July 1 to agree on a spending plan.

In the meantime a lot of bills that have been making their way through the process will die due to the House’s hasty departure. It’s a shame that some good bills like prison reform and opportunities for people with special needs will die. But there is a silver lining — bad bills died, too, including those detrimental to the environment.

In a strange twist of fate, the meltdown in the Florida House has given new hope to environmental issues.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.

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