The directive from Florida voters was clear: By a 75 percent majority, they approved a proposal in November to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to buy and protect unspoiled land.
So what does the state Legislature plan to do with the money? Wages for officials who regulate fish farming, new patrol vehicles for wildlife officers, salaries in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, funds for law enforcement officers to ticket speeding boaters and other routine expenses.
Just a fraction of the anticipated $750 million land-buying fund would go toward the purchase of environmentally sensitive land, such as tropical hammocks in the Keys or ranchlands inhabited by Florida panthers.
The Republican-controlled House and Senate propose to channel the largest chunk of the land preservation money — more than $230 million — to routine expenses previously funded through other sources.
The Senate budget includes:
• $34.5 million for officers who enforce hunting, fishing and boating rules
• $10 million for salaries in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection
• $2.5 million for road and bridge maintenance by the Florida Forest Service
• $1.3 million to replace patrol vehicles for wildlife officers
• $220,000 for the Agriculture Department to regulate fish farms
Among the items in the House budget:
• $40 million for salaries in the Florida Forest Service
• $38 million for salaries in the Florida Park Service
• $4.9 million for technology and information services in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection
• $839,000 for firefighting equipment in Florida Forest Service
• $717,000 for salaries in the Division of Cultural Affairs
Sponsors of the amendment, who waged a long and difficult petition battle to get it on the ballot, say the spending shift defies the will of voters. They cite the ballot's title: "Water and Land Conservation: Dedicates funds to acquire and restore Florida conservation and recreation lands."
"I don't think the words 'Land Acquisition Trust Fund' could be any more clear," said Will Abberger, chairman of Florida's Water and Land Legacy, the committee that sponsored the amendment. "It's not the 'land management trust fund.' It's not the 'existing agencies operations trust fund.' It's the Land Acquisition Trust Fund."
Legislative leaders defend the money shuffle as legitimate spending for a broad range of conservation purposes. They say there's more to protecting the environment than simply accumulating land.
Michael Williams, spokesman for House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said lawmakers have "responsibly funded the requirements of Amendment 1."
"The speaker does not believe we should purchase land just for the sake of purchasing land," he said in an email. "Buying up land we cannot care for that falls into disrepair or becomes a breeding ground for harmful invasive species is not a legacy he is interested in leaving. Instead, we should make sure we can maintain the 5.3 million acres of conservation lands we already own. We believe land should be purchased for strategic reasons, such as wildlife corridors and connecting existing state lands."
The roots of Amendment 1 go back to the recession, when real estate transaction revenue dried up, choking off the source of funds for the state's environmental land-buying program, known as Florida Forever. By the time the economy picked up, new legislators had come into office, and land-buying wasn't a priority for state leaders hungry for more development and jobs. Environmental groups launched a campaign to persuade voters to amend the Florida Constitution to devote one-third of existing revenue from real estate transaction taxes to the purchase of environmentally significant lands, particularly those on the Florida Forever priority list. These include isolated pine rocklands in Miami-Dade County, a corridor of panther habitat through which the endangered cats travel from Big Cypress National Preserve to the Caloosahatchee River, the Green Swamp between Tampa and Orlando, the land surrounding natural springs and the shores of the Indian River Lagoon.
It's unclear exactly how much money would go toward land-buying under each spending bill. Each bill includes several broad spending categories that would likely include some money for buying property. The House budget, for example, includes $116 million for Everglades restoration, springs protection and the conservation of agricultural lands. The Senate budget contains $192 million for similar purposes, as well as money for the establishment of trails for hiking and biking.
But the House budget would devote only $8 million to $10 million to Florida Forever, the state's core land-buying program, depending on how the numbers are interpreted, and the Senate would spend $15 million on it. The largest single chunk of money, more than $230 million in each spending plan, would go toward routine government expenses.
Backers of the amendment haven't given up. The abrupt termination of the Legislative session, when the House unexpectedly adjourned April 28 without adopting a budget, has given them more time. They plan to lobby legislators in coming weeks, hoping to achieve a significant increase in money spent on land when the Legislature reconvenes June 1.
"There's tremendous room for improvement in the special session," said House Democratic leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. "It was a clear direction that the people of Florida gave to the Legislature to spend these dollars."
Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, said he would press in the special session for $300 million or more of the Amendment 1 money to go toward buying land.
"That's the kind of money I think we should spend to meet the intent of the voters," he said. "I'm optimistic. There's a tremendous amount of public support. The language is very clear that we acquire land."
Land at stake
The Florida Forever list calls for buying and protecting land around 119 environmentally significant areas. They include:
• Lake Wales Ridge south of Orlando
• Apalachicola River in Northwest Florida
• Panther Glades southwest of Lake Okeechobee
• Fisheating Creek west of Lake Okeechobee
• Florida Keys tropical hammocks
• Miami-Dade County pine rocklands
• Ichetucknee Trace in North Florida
• Belle Meade in eastern Collier County
• Indian River Lagoon
• Green Swamp east of Tampa
• Lower Suwannee River and Gulf Watershed