Why Florida needs the Water and Land Conservation Amendment

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Editor’s note: The following is an op-ed from Will Abberger, Chair of Florida’s Water and Land Legacy Campaign and Director of Conservation Finance for The Trust for Public Land. This op-ed is offered as a counterpoint to this post, “State lands amendment doesn’t hold water.

With an eye toward conserving Florida’s rich natural beauty for future generations to enjoy, our state has had an excellent and long-standing commitment to protecting public land and water through acquisition and management.   Since 1990, Preservation 2000 and its successor, Florida Forever, have provided $300 million per year to acquire conservation and recreation lands.  These programs, started during the administration of Governor Bob Martinez in 1990 and continued under Governor Jeb Bush’s leadership in 2000, were funded by issuing bonds.  The repayment for those bonds has been through the documentary stamps, a small fee on real estate transfers and similar transactions.  

Starting in 2009, no new state funding has been provided for our continuing needs for the clean water, protected natural areas, and parks that make many of our cities livable.  In contrast to $300 million per year, since 2009 a total of only $23 million in new funding has been allocated to Florida Forever.  This represents a 97.5 percent cut from the sustained level of funding Florida had been committing to water and land conservation, in good times and in bad, under both Republican and Democratic leadership, for nineteen years.  

Since 2009, every year Florida citizens, local governments, businesses, conservation organizations, and others have asked the Florida Legislature to restore funding to these vital programs.   And every year they have declined to do so.  Meanwhile, over the course of the past twenty years, Florida voters have approved 82 city and county ballot measures, including votes in almost every major urban county, to dedicate local funds for conservation and recreation land acquisition.  Florida’s citizens vote for conservation because they understand that without clean and abundant water, pristine beaches, flowing springs and natural areas, our state cannot attract tourists, cannot sustain population growth, and cannot attract high wage-high skill businesses whose employees demand a high quality of life.  The only way to assure state funding is available to protect and restore the water and land necessary for our state’s continued prosperity is to constitutionally dedicate these funds.  This is exactly what the Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment does.   

Florida has developed one of the most transparent and objective programs for selecting which lands to purchase based on their ability to meet our water, wildlife habitat preservation, and community park needs, as well as lands that contribute to the critically important restoration of our degraded water bodies and natural systems.  Guided by science and oversight by citizen advisors, the state’s Acquisition and Restoration Council has developed a plan identifying an additional 2 million additional acres of critically important land that must be protected.  28 percent of our state is in public ownership.  About 10 percent of the 28 percent is actually state-owned, including non-conservation land like the Florida Turnpike and Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, in addition to our precious state parks, water management areas and local preserves.  The remaining eleven percent is public land owned by the federal government — like the Kennedy Space Center — the water management districts and local governments.  The additional land targeted for conservation under the Water and Land Conservation Amendment is less than one percent of the over 25 million acres of Florida currently in private ownership.

The reason our fabulous state parks have won national recognition is because in the past Florida’s policy-makers had the foresight to set aside these state jewels and provide for their adequate management.  The Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment will assure that we can do the same for future generations.

In past years, under Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever, it made sense to issue bonds to generate the funding needed to protect natural Florida as a legacy for future generations.  Documentary stamp revenues have been the historic funding source for water and land conservation in Florida and are currently being used to pay off previously issued bonds.  The Water and Land Conservation Amendment proposes a new “pay as you go” approach.  This will not only enable preservation of irreplaceable natural areas that should not be lost to development, but also allocate funds for restoration — such as the Everglades — and management and stewardship of our existing conservation and recreation lands.

The amendment intentionally provides for the continued repayment of existing land conservation bonds as valid use of the funds.  Constitutional dedication of funds for debt service ensures the state’s high debt rating is preserved and in fact may give investors even greater confidence, knowing the legislature cannot divert these funds for other purposes.

Currently, well more than the amendment’s proposed 33 percent of revenues from the documentary stamp are allocated to land conservation, all to serve the debt on existing bonds.  As the old bonds are paid off, the amount of documentary stamp revenues committed to this purpose will decrease.  However, as noted above, new funding for conservation of Florida natural heritage, drinking water recharge areas and lands to provide opportunities for outdoor recreation has been slashed to nearly zero.  One-third of the existing documentary stamp revenues is a very reasonable amount to protect and restore national treasures like the Everglades, ensure that we have a clean water supply and preserve natural Florida for our children and grandchildren. 

Unlike funding for transportation, water and land conservation does not receive tens of millions of dollars annually from the federal government.  In fact, Congress has drastically reduced federal funding to protect national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges, including those in Florida.  State funding for transportation also receives significant funding from the gasoline tax, while the documentary stamp revenue has been the only source of funding for state water and land conservation.

As our economy recovers, the demand for more growth, more water and more roads will continue to strain our state’s natural resources.  Lands that provide important natural goods and services, such as recharging drinking water, filtering out contaminants and providing fish and wildlife habitat, will be developed, as their owners will have no other reasonable options.   In the past, when there were valuable public benefits to saving land, state and local governments had the financial resources to provide an alternative to development to willing sellers.  It makes sense that a portion documentary stamp is set aside for conservation because it is tied to the development of land.  By setting a fixed percentage of documentary stamp revenues in the Water and Land Conservation amendment, funding for conservation will also be sensitive to our state’s economic realities.  As our economy improves, we can ensure that we continue to save Florida’s critical lands and waters.

Fundamentally, we must ask: is protecting water and natural areas in Florida, matching grants for parks in cities and towns, saving areas for hunting, fishing and boating enough to dedicate less than one percent of our current state budget for these purposes?  If the answer to you is yes, then join over 3,000 volunteers, over 550 donors and over 250 endorsing organizations in supporting Florida’s Water and Land Legacy.  

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.