Sunday, July 15, 2018
Opinion

Column: Will legislators finally start preserving Florida's land, as the Constitution requires?

Our elected legislators are coming back to Tallahassee this month to begin deliberating the public's business. In legislative committee meetings, they will start deciding which issues will become priorities for the official 60-day 2018 legislative session that begins in January.

One question all citizens should be asking our lawmakers right now: Will they once again blatantly ignore Florida voters by failing to appropriate adequate funds for state conservation land-buying?

Florida voters are divided on many things, but on this we are clearly united. Just look at the numbers: Voters approved adding the Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment (Amendment 1) to our state Constitution in 2014 by a landslide — it got a whopping 75 percent majority, more than any other ballot initiative or candidate. Its title was clear: "Water and Land Conservation — Dedicates funds to acquire and restore Florida conservation and recreation lands."

Yet our state lawmakers in the past two years have boldly swiped the money that voters earmarked for conservation land-buying and instead spent it on other things it's not supposed to pay for, like state equipment, government worker salaries and even insurance premiums. This year's state budget had zero dollars for Florida Forever, a program that used to get $300 million a year to buy conservation lands. This is not right, and we need to demand that our elected officials fund conservation land-buying in the 2018 legislative session.

Take a look at this map. You can see the lands that our state could buy or have conservation easements on if lawmakers spent our tax dollars as the Water and Land Conservation amendment requires them to do. The map shows potential conservation lands with willing sellers, which the state has already approved for purchase. The tax money is available to move forward with those purchases, but lawmakers aren't doing their jobs by directing the money where it is supposed to go.

The Water and Land Conservation Amendment requires that, for the next 20 years, 33 percent of the proceeds from the already-existing real estate documentary stamp taxes go for conservation land acquisition and restoration. When it became clear lawmakers were ignoring the voter mandate, our group — the Florida Wildlife Federation — along with the Sierra Club, St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida went to court on behalf of Florida citizens. Our case is ongoing.

Floridians have made it clear that we want our land and water conserved as a legacy for future generations. We want a green infrastructure to support the assets that make this a great place to live. We want clean water for people and wildlife. We want places set aside so that every inch of our state is not covered by strip malls, golf courses and housing developments.

Legislators made a promise to represent us, and it's wrong for them to keep ignoring us. Let your legislator know you are tired of this and that you want the dollars you voted for conservation land-buying to be directed to conservation land-buying in the 2018 legislative session.

Manley Fuller is president of the Florida Wildlife Federation.

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