Amendment 1 passed by a wide margin but now all that cash is up for grabs

Published February 26 2015
Updated February 27 2015

AMID ALL THE NASTY ATTACK ADS, one political commercial that ran on Florida television stations last year stood out for sheer beauty. It opened with clouds scudding across the Everglades, a rainbow arching over a stand of mangroves and a girl swimming in a spring.

"What's more important than protecting Florida's natural areas?" the narrator asks. "For water. For wildlife. For people." Vote for Amendment 1, the ad said, if you want to "protect and restore" Florida's "drinking water, lakes, beaches, lakes, rivers and springs."

In overwhelming numbers, people did vote for it. The measure to pump millions of dollars into protecting the state's environment won with 75 percent of the vote, a far higher margin of victory than Gov. Rick Scott or any other politician running statewide.

The original idea behind Amendment 1 had been to create a guaranteed source of funding for the Florida Forever land-buying program, which the Legislature had stripped of cash in recent years.

But now that it's time to decide how to actually spend the $22 billion the mandate is expected to raise over the next two decades, some ideas are popping up that don't have anything to do with Florida Forever. They are ideas that certainly didn't appear anywhere in that TV ad, and that probably weren't on the minds of the voters as they cast their ballots.

Ideas like using Amendment 1 cash to build new water plants and sewer plants. Or to reconstruct eroding beaches in front of million-dollar homes. Or to pay the salaries of all of the employees of the Florida Park Service.

"We should use common sense and (spend the money to) solve the problems directly facing this state first," state Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, who chairs the powerful Senate Rules Committee, contended in an interview on WFSU-FM.

To him, preserving environmentally sensitive land is not as urgent as building new sewer plants that would replace the leaky septic tanks previously approved by state officials that continue to foul the state's springs. A prior effort to make the owners of the septic tanks pay for the upgrades themselves, instead of using tax money to do it, was repealed by legislators.

To Clay Henderson, this is like the lottery all over again — and once again the voters are the losers. Henderson, an Orlando attorney and former president of the Florida Audubon Society, helped write the language of Amendment 1. While working on it, he and his allies were mindful of what happened when the voters approved the Florida Lottery in 1987. The voters had been told the lottery money would go toward education, and many assumed it would produce a big boost in state funding. Instead, the Legislature drained off money that had been going to education before the lottery, reasoning that the lottery money could simply replace it. Then they used that cash to plug various holes in the state's budget that had nothing to do with education.

The voters also assumed that the lottery proceeds would go toward paying teachers' salaries, supplying classroom needs in kindergartens through high schools and so forth. Instead the lottery money has been spent primarily on higher education and construction work. To avoid a similar fate with Amendment 1, Henderson said, "we drafted this one as tight as we could. Look at the number of times we used the word 'land' in there." They wanted the money to be used for land acquisition, and to avoid anything involving "bricks and mortar" — in other words, anything that needed to be built, like sewer plants. But they couldn't entirely tie the Legislature's hands, because the Florida Supreme Court would not have let it on the ballot, he explained.

Legislative leaders opposed the measure, which was written as a rebuke to them for failing to keep Florida Forever going during the recession. Yet ultimately they would be the ones deciding how the money would be spent.

Henderson and his allies figured that, as with the lottery, someone would try to grab that money for some other purpose — but even they have been startled by some of the suggestions. The idea of paying park employees' salaries, he said, is one they never could have come up with.

Beach renourishment, he said, is one that they have argued about internally, but ultimately agreed that it might fit under their definition of what the money should be spent fixing. Also fitting under that definition: "a certain amount of infrastructure for Everglades restoration," he said. But that was it, from their point of view — not the sewer lines and water pipes and stormwater retrofits that legislators want, he said.

To Gov. Rick Scott, the definition is a lot broader than that. Scott, who neither endorsed nor opposed the wildly popular amendment, unveiled his environmental budget Feb. 9 without mentioning Amendment 1. Afterward, though, that was all reporters wanted to ask him about. Scott insisted he was going to spend a lot more on the Everglades and the state's springs than just what Amendment 1 provided — and that that was "because we have a good economy" with all the jobs that his policies have created. So what should the Amendment 1 money go to? Scott said: "Let's keep all of our natural areas — whether it's beach renourishment, or Everglades restoration, or our springs, or the acquisition of land — all these things fit together." Then he stopped taking questions.

Craig Pittman covers environmental issues for the Times. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.

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