In what supporters are labeling the "end game for conservation in Florida," voters this November are being asked to change the state constitution to earmark billions of tax dollars for a host of environmental protection projects.
The Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative, or Amendment 1 on the ballot, would dedicate 33 percent of annual revenue raised through an existing tax on real estate transactions over the next 20 years to conservation projects. That amounts to an estimated $18 billion to $20 billion for everything from beach and spring restoration, to park improvements.
For a constitutional amendment to pass, 60 percent of the votes cast must be a "yes."
"If we don't protect water supplies and wildlife habitat over the next 20 years, it will be gone," Will Abberger of the Trust for Public Land, the initiative's largest funder, said.
Over the next 20 years Florida's population is expected to grow by millions, taxing water and land resources like never before.
The nearly 2 million acres of land that would be purchased if the amendment passes are designed to provide buffers from development and to safeguard drinking water resources, wildlife habitat, beaches and fisheries.
Opponents, mainly business groups, agree that preserving the state's resources is important, but that changing the constitution reduces the Legislature's ability to use that tax money for other more pressing needs.
"We should only amend our constitution sparingly and thoughtfully and not use it to accomplish what can be addressed legislatively," Steve Halverson, chairman of the Florida Council of 100, a business group, said in a press release.
Still, the state's tourism industry and myriad environmental groups argue that changing the constitution is the only way to ensure funding for Florida Forever, the conservation land purchasing program that saw budget cuts of more than 97 percent since 2009, when the state was in the grips of the Great Recession.
Yet, even with economic recovery in recent years, Florida Forever's funding has never been fully restored under Gov. Rick Scott's administration, so supporters of the amendment set to gathering the 800,000 signatures needed to get the initiative on the ballot.
Scott has not stated a position on Amendment 1, but said through a spokesman that he had made significant environmental investments without the mandate of a constitutional amendment — including $32 million per year for his Everglades restoration plan.
Scott spokesman Greg Blair also pointed to the governor's "Let's Keep Florida Beautiful" plan, in which Scott says he will recommend $150 million per year for Florida Forever, among other environmental projects.
Under the amendment, Florida Forever would receive the $300 million in annual funding it was intended to receive when the law was passed in 2001.
Scott's Democratic challenger, former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, supports the initiative.
Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida and co-chair of the Amendment 1 campaign, said it is important to the state's future to protect funding for environmental programs from the whims of whoever happens to be in Tallahassee.
"Up until this year there's been almost no land acquisition by the state for five years," Draper said. "For all practical purposes Florida Forever has been out of business."