Coalition of environmental groups launches petition drive for constitutional amendment
A coalition of the state's top environmental organizations on Tuesday launched a petition drive to put an amendment on the November 2014 ballot that would guarantee a stable source of money for environmental protection.
The effort, organized by a group calling itself the Florida Water and Land Legacy Campaign, aims to end the years of eroding funding for environmental perservation and protection programs prompted by legislative budget cuts and shifts in priorities away from environmental protection.
Since 2009, legislators have cut funding for the state's Florida Forever program by 97.5 percent to $23 million for land management and ecological restoration, including the Everglades. This year, the Legislature reduced water protection and conservation funds dropped to $8.5 million.
“This will be the most significant vote in Florida for our environment in our lifetimes,” said Will Abberger, the campaign’s chair and the director of conservation finance for the Trust for Public Land in a statement. “We are launching a grassroots effort to let the people decide if clean water and natural land are a legacy we want to leave for our children and grandchildren – and generations to come.”
The amendment would take effect July 1, 2015, and for 20 years would dedicate one-third of the net revenues from the existing excise tax on documents by reviving funding for the Florida Forever Program. The funds would go to restore the Everglades, protect drinking water sources, and revive the state’s historic commitment to protecting natural lands and wildlife habitat.
The goal is to keep the dedicated funding source away from the state's general revenue fund, controlled by the legislature. The guaranteed stream of revenue is expected to raise more than $5 billion for water and land conservation in Florida over the next ten years and $10 billion over the 20-year life of the measure, without any tax increase, organizers said.
The Florida Water and Land Legacy Campaign includes the Trust for Public Land, Audubon Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, 1000 Friends of Florida, Defenders of Wildlife, and others. The campaign must obtain signatures of at least 676,811 registered voters to put the issue on the 2014 ballot.
“We are reaching out across our state to business leaders, conservationists, people of every age, ethnicity, creed, and political stripe, to ask them to protect what is fundamental to our economy and our quality of life in Florida – the land and water that makes this such a special place,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, in a statement. “Florida Forever has been cut drastically since 2009. We can’t protect this state on less than a dollar per year per Floridian. It just won’t work.”
The Coalition sees the proposed amendment as a responsible remedy to counter the dramatic reduction in funding for environmental protection and preservation, without having to raise taxes.
“When it comes to dedicating funding to protect Florida’s environment, the Great Recession has led to a complete depression. State funding to protect our most precious natural resources has slowed to a trickle,” said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, and a leader in the effort. “This amendment is not a tax increase. It is the dedication of an existing funding source back to its historic purpose. Passing this amendment will ensure Florida’s long-term traditional conservation values are secure and protected from short-term political pressures.”
More from the statement:
These funds would be dedicated to support financing or refinancing the acquisition and improvement of:
· Land, water areas, and related property interests and resources for conservation lands including wetlands, forests, and fish and wildlife habitat;
· Lands that protect significant water resources and drinking water sources, including lands protecting the water quality and quantity of rivers, lakes, streams, springsheds, and lands providing recharge for groundwater and aquifer systems;
· Lands in the Everglades Agricultural Area and the Everglades Protection Area, as defined in Section 7(b) of Article II of the Florida Constitution;
· Beaches and shores; outdoor recreation lands, including recreational trails, parks, and urban open space; rural landscapes; historic, archaeological, or geologic sites as well as management of lands acquired;
· Restoration of natural systems related to the enhancement of public access and recreational enjoyment; and
· Payment of the debt service on bonds issued pursuant to Article VII, Section 11(e) of the Florida Constitution.
The Coalition says support for environmental protection remains strong in Florida and is solidly nonpartisan. Since 1994, Florida voters have approved five of the six amendments proposed to the state Constitution related to conservation and the environment -- an 83 percent passage rate. The average “Yes” vote for those successful conservation amendments was 68 percent.
Former Florida Governors Graham, Martinez, Chiles, Bush, and Crist all supported Preservation 2000/Florida Forever, Everglades’ restoration, and funding for land management. Historically, Democratic and Republican leadership in the Florida Legislature have supported funding for land and water conservation.
“Regardless of political party and in good times and bad, for more than 20 years Legislatures and Governors have supported these programs. Since the recent economic downturn, our water and land, our beaches and springs, have suffered greater cuts and more damage than almost any other area of statewide concern,” said Abberger.
The campaign will rely on volunteer signature gatherers and donors from across the state, and is urging supporters to sign up at FloridaWaterLandLegacy.org , or call 850-629-4656, or e-mail: campaign@FloridaWaterLandLegacy.org.