Legislature not increasing environmental protection despite Amendment 1 mandate

TCPalm, Isadora Rangal

When 75 percent of Florida voters passed Amendment 1 last year, supporters hoped it would be a mandate for lawmakers to increase spending on land and water conservation to spare the environment from development before it’s too late.

It was not. Lawmakers have different designs on the money, according to the House and Senate budget proposals that will be hammered out in the three-week special session that starts Monday.

SCROLL DOWN FOR AN EXPLANATION OF HOW THEY WANT TO SPEND THE MONEY. VOTE AND TELL US IF IT'S A PROPER USE OF AMENDMENT 1 DOLLARS. 

Only 1 percent to 2 percent of this year's estimated $750 million pot would go to Florida Forever, the conservation land-buying program Amendment 1 was meant to revive after lawmakers gutted its $300 million annual budget during the recession. The House proposed $8 million for it; the Senate, $15 million.

Yet $230 million is proposed for certain government agencies’ routine operating expenses — from buying wildlife officers’ patrol vehicles to paying technology and information employees’ salaries and benefits. Millions more are proposed for items Amendment 1 sponsors didn’t envision funding, such as converting septic tanks into sewer lines in the Florida Keys.

At the same time, the Senate also proposed cutting $33 million in Everglades restoration-related funding, while the House proposed about the same amount budget as in 2014, at $132.3 million.

Environmentalists hope lawmakers change their minds during the special session, when the House and Senate will reintroduce their individual budget proposals and begin negotiating a final state budget.

Florida’s Water and Land Legacy, the group that drafted Amendment 1 and pushed it on the ballot, is lobbying lawmakers to boost environmental funding instead of just robbing Peter to pay Paul, Executive Director Aliki Moncrief said.

“Voters certainly intended for Amendment 1 to increase funding for land conservation,” Moncrief said, “but the budget proposals currently fall short, particularly when it comes to funding Florida Forever.”

AMENDMENT 1 BALLOT LANGUAGE

“Funds the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands including wetlands and forests; fish and wildlife habitat; lands protecting water resources and drinking water sources, including the Everglades, and the water quality of rivers, lakes, and streams; beaches and shores; outdoor recreational lands; working farms and ranches; and historic or geologic sites, by dedicating 33 percent of net revenues from the existing excise tax on documents for 20 years.”

MONEY SHUFFLE

Amendment 1 did not create a new revenue source, only earmarked existing funds for the environment instead of transportation, affordable housing and other expenses previously funded by 33 percent of the annual documentary stamp fees. Lawmakers complain that left them to shuffle money around just to break even.

Amendment 1’s broad ballot language also left them to interpret it for appropriate uses of the money. Its mention of “historic sites” justifies giving the Division of Cultural Affairs more than $1 million to run the Museum of Florida History and the Knott House Museum, both in Tallahassee, said Michael Williams, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli’s spokesman. Its mention of public land management justifies routine operating expenses for state agencies tasked with buying and managing land, said Sen. Alan Hays, the Umatilla Republican in charge of the Senate’s environmental budget.

“How do you expect the land that’s under our control to be supervised without proper (patrol) vehicles?” Hays said.

A staunch land-buying opponent, Hays said the state should decide how much is enough before buying more, but he thinks the more than 9 million acres the state and federal governments own in Florida are enough.

He said the Legislature will start the budget from scratch and will look at “anything and everything,” but should focus on managing what it already has — by removing invasive species, for example — instead of buying more land, which takes it off the tax rolls and could lead to property tax increases.

SPECIAL SESSION

The impasse between the House and the Senate on Medicaid expansion and health care spending overshadowed the Amendment 1 debate during the March-to-May legislative session, which unexpectedly ended early without the Legislature adopting a final budget.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, agreed Amendment 1 wasn’t meant for paying for agencies’ routine operating expenses. In the special session, he will propose using as much as $45 million from Amendment 1 to issue bonds to generate $500 million to buy land.

The money could be used to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee to move excess water into the Everglades, thereby reducing polluted-water discharges into the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon.

Thousands of Negron’s constituents have phoned, emailed and asked him in person to push for more land purchases, he said. Lawmakers are aware they need to buy more land, Negron said, citing the Senate increasing proposed Florida Forever spending from $2 million to $15 million in April. He expects budget negotiations to end in an even larger increase.

“I don’t think the initial legislative budget is properly responsive to Amendment 1,” Negron said. “People expect the Legislature to do its job and implement Amendment 1 and I’m optimistic that we’ll get there.”

AMENDMENT 1 SPENDING 

Here’s how the House, Senate, Gov. Rick Scott and Florida’s Water and Land Legacy think Amendment 1 money should — and should not — be spent. VOTE IN THE POLL AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS STORY.

DEBT SERVICE: Pay off bonds issued for Florida Forever land buys, Everglades restoration projects and water management district projects.

  • Water/Land Legacy: $177.6 million
  • House: $191.1 million
  • Senate: $177.7 million
  • Scott: $177.6 million

EVERGLADES, ESTUARIES AND NORTHERN EVERGLADES: Kissimmee River restoration, St. Lucie River Watershed Program, Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan projects and Everglades Restoration Strategies, which requires the state to invest $32 million annually to clean Everglades-bound water. All currently funded through state’s general fund and environmental trust funds.

  • Water/Land Legacy: $170 million
  • House: $97.4 million
  • Senate: $69.4 million
  • Scott: $150 million

EXISTING AGENCY OPERATING EXPENSES: Operating expenses for State Department, Florida Forest Service, Department of Environmental Protection, Agency for Persons with Disabilities, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. All currently funded mostly by state’s general fund.

Senate proposes $180.3 million for salaries/benefits, including $53.2 million to cover 84 percent of costs for Forest Service’s 1,178 employees. House proposes $159.4 million for salaries/benefits, including $2.8 million to cover 88 percent of costs for 51 State Department’s historical resources preservation employees. The House and the Senate proposed about $1.3 million for Division of Cultural Affairs’ Museum of Florida History and the Knott House Museum in Tallahassee.

  • Water/Land Legacy: $0
  • House: $236 million
  • Senate: $230.1 million
  • Scott: $156.3 million

KEYS WASTEWATER: Help pay for converting all Florida Keys properties to sewer from water-polluting septic systems, currently paid for by landowners with help from local and state governments. Though good for the environment, amendment sponsor says state should use other funding sources for such wastewater projects.

  • Water/Land Legacy: $0
  • House: $2.5 million
  • Senate: $0
  • Scott: $17.5 million

 

FLORIDA FOREVER: Amendment 1 was meant to revive this 1999 wildlife habitat and parkland conservation program, whose $300 million annual budget the Legislature cut to less than $20 million annually since the recession.

  • Water/Land Legacy: $170 million
  • House: $8 million
  • Senate: $15 million
  • Scott: $100 million

 LAND MANAGEMENT: Maintain about 4.6 million state-owned acres, including invasive-species control and wildlife-habitat management, currently funded through state’s general fund and environmental trust funds.

  • Water/Land Legacy: $115 million
  • House: $144.2 million
  • Senate: $105.6 million
  • Scott: $97 million

SPRINGS: Restore springs critically damaged by toxic algae blooms fed by leaky septic tanks and excessive fertilizer runoff. Monitor pollution in springs and groundwater. Springs advocates who want Legislature to increase restoration funding were disappointed with last year’s $26 million allocation from state’s general fund and other environmental trust funds.

  • Water/Land Legacy: $60 million
  • House: $16.4 million
  • Senate: $72.9 million, including $20 million for land acquisition
  • Scott: $50 million

RURAL AND FAMILY LANDS: State has paid $14.2 million to ranchers, farmers and other large-tract owners who agree not to develop their land. For example, state has paid Adams Ranch $3.5 million to conserve 8,765 of its 40,000 acres, including 2,318 acres of wildlife habitat. Another 5,000 acres are eligible for conservation easements.

  • Water/Land Legacy: $39 million
  • House: $2.5 million to finance $25 million in bonds
  • Senate: $0
  • Scott: $0

BEACH MANAGEMENT: Dredge inlets and pump new sand on eroded beaches. Treasure Coast governments are seeking money to dredge the Sebastian and St. Lucie inlets and rebuild beaches in Wabasso, Vero Beach, Fort Pierce and Hutchinson Island, among others

  • Water/Land Legacy: $30 million
  • House and Senate: $25 million
  • Scott: $25 million

TRAILS: Fund SunTrail, a statewide non-motorized, multiuse trail system that would include bicycle paths and sidewalks in parks, beaches and other conservation areas

  • Water/Land Legacy: $15 million
  • House: $0
  • Senate: $25 million
  • Scott: $0

SOURCE: Florida’s Water & Land Legacy; Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

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