Not all Florida lawmakers support land-conservation Amendment 1

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In November, Florida voters will decide if land conservation funds should be part of the state Constitution.

But some lawmakers are not supporting Amendment 1, which received final approval from the Florida Department of State this week.

“Legislating via constitutional amendments doesn’t work in California, and it won’t work here,” House Speaker Will Weatherford told Jim Turner of the News Service of Florida in an email Friday.

Senate President Don Gaetz insists the amendment gives too much land to the state.

“The government already owns a large percentage of our state,” said an email from Gaetz’ spokesperson Katie Betta. “President Gaetz does not believe in obligating the taxpayers of Florida to arbitrarily give the government control over more land.”

Gaetz prefers if the Legislature liked at each transaction individually, rather than establishing “an eternal government land acquisition program,” said Betta.

“The amendment is not about a specific piece of land, or a particular transaction,” Betta added, “rather he believes the amendment is based on a core belief that more land of some kind somewhere needs to be controlled by the government and not private landholders.”

Florida Water and Land Legacy, Inc., writes Turner, seeks to set aside one-third of the state’s documentary stamp tax revenues, paid after a real estate transaction,  to secure conservation and recreation lands, restore degraded natural systems, manage and protect existing lands critical to the water supply.

If passed, the constitutional amendment could generate as much as $10 billion over the two decades.

Will Abberger, Florida Water and Land Legacy campaign chair said the amendment intends to dedicated and sustainable supply of money to be used to protect the state’s water resources.

“Having a source of clean drinking water, ensuring that the quality of our rivers, lakes and streams is good,” Abberger added. “Protecting our beaches is something that is important enough that it shouldn’t be subject to whatever political winds are blowing in Tallahassee.”

The amendment could use help in reaching the 60 percent approval required from voters, Abberger admits, especially with the increased attention water problems have received from state lawmakers in the past year.

Legislators are exploring issues like releasing polluted water out Lake Okeechobee, deteriorating conditions in Florida’s natural springs and the state’s federal lawsuit against Georgia over shortages of freshwater that flows into Apalachicola Bay.

“I think those crises have raised awareness of Florida voters of protecting our waters,” said Abberger.

The criticism from some legislators and business groups is based on how the amendment tells lawmakers how to craft the budget.

“Imagine, if every group that wasn’t satisfied with the amount of funding their special program got during the recession decided to do a constitutional amendment and mandate a certain amount of spending, how impossible it would be to balance our state budget?” said David Hart, executive vice president of governmental affairs and political operations for the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber will take a formal position on the amendment at an upcoming board meeting, Turner reports.

“What our board historically has been concerned about is that we don’t follow the path of California,” Hart added, “where so many mandates have been put in their constitution that their legislature is incapable of balancing the budget anymore.”

Diminished Florida Forever program funds were the basis of amendment. Florida Forever uses bonds backed with documentary stamps revenue and permits lawmakers to spend as much as $300 million annually for conservation.

Lawmakers set aside $20 million in 2012 for land conservation, establishing a sale of surplus land within the Department of Environmental Protection. The program, sold to the Legislature as possibly generating up to $50 million, has not lived up to expectations. 

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.