What Will Lawmakers Do with Environmental Funds?
One of the most contentious environmental issues facing state lawmakers in the upcoming session is what to do with Amendment 1. That mandated a large pot of tax money be used to buy and protect environmentally-sensitive land. But just how that money should be used is muddying the political waters.
Early in 2015, three adventurers walked, hiked and kayaked 1,000 miles from the headwaters of the Everglades, across the Panhandle to the Alabama state line. Their goal: to bring attention to the need to protect Florida's remaining natural lands before they're paved over.
Tampa photographer Carlton Ward Jr. spoke about the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition's mission while paddling a protected stretch of river near Pensacola.
"While we're out here, state lawmakers are in session," he said, "and I can't help but think there's still not enough appreciation and emphasis on protecting these remaining wild places. Because in the next few years, if we don't make some moves, some of these connections are gone.
Lawmakers are soon back in session, but have they really made any moves to protect those wild areas? Republican David Simmons is a state Senator from Altamonte Springs.
"We don't need to go out and just buy a bunch of land, because there happens to be money available to do that," said Simmons. "What we want to know is 20 years from now, we can tell our children or grandchildren that we solved the problem for the preservation and the restoration of our resources."
What "solving the problem" actually means depends on who you talk to.
Three-quarters of the state's voters approved Amendment 1 in 2014. That mandated one-third of the taxes collected on real estate transactions - known as “doc stamps” - go to the state Land Acquisition Trust Fund. It would be used to “acquire, restore, improve and manage conservation lands.”
That could mean as much as $300 million would be available in the upcoming fiscal year. Gov. Scott has requested a budget that would include only $63 million for the land-acquisition program Florida Forever. But he also wants $50 million to help maintain the state's natural springs, and $10 million to give matching grants to local communities for land buying.
Last year, Simmons said lawmakers are meeting the requirements of Amendment 1.
"I can tell you that the senators with whom I have spoken believe very strongly that we will comply with not only the letter but with the spirit of this Constitutional amendment," he said. "And there will need to be a nexus between the preservation and the improvement of our environment, particularly with our water resources."
Republican Alan Hays of Umatilla, who oversees environmental spending in the Senate, wants to spend $50 million on Florida Forever. He wrote in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: “We don’t need to be known as the hoarding-land state. We need to be known as good stewards of the resources that the people own, whether it be their cash or whether it be their hard assets.”
Hays declined to return phone calls for comment, but says last year the Legislature appropriated well over $3 billion in funding for environmental programs, Most of that went for projects to protect water resources.
"As you can see," Hays said, "there is a whole lot more to being a conservationist than acquiring property."
Florida Forever and its predecessor, Preservation 2000, has purchased more than 2.5 million acres since its inception in 2001.
In December, State Rep. Gayle Harrell of Stuart and incoming Senate President Joe Negron filed bills to funnel $200 million annually from the Amendment 1 money to restore the Florida Everglades and nearby waterways in central and southern Florida.
That's 25 percent of the money expected to flow from Amendment One. But what about the other 75 percent - for everything north of the Everglades? Environmentalists say the pot of money that voters wanted used to preserve land is being eyed for everything from water projects to beach renourishment.
"We need to have a blueprint for the entire state," says Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, who organized the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition.
"It's not just the Everglades, which are critically important - the largest restoration project in the world - but also it's important in the Suwannee River watershed, it's important in Northwest Florida, it's important in Northeast Florida," she says, "and we can show projects that are on the Florida Forever list that are waiting for approvals in every part of the state."
Dimmitt says there are other options besides outright purchase of land. Florida Forever funds can also purchase what are called conservation easements.
"There's a large number of willing landowners who are looking for this funding to stay as a landowner - they will continue the upkeep, the maintenance of this land - but you're guaranteeing for the future, that doesn't become more intensive development."
Several environmental groups last year sued the state, saying lawmakers used Amendment 1 money for salaries and operating expenses.
A Tallahassee judge in December rejected part of the lawsuit. But he may have the final say on what lawmakers can and cannot do with the money.