Few betrayals of the public trust have played out so openly and brazenly as the Florida Legislature's fraudulent effort to implement Amendment 1, the land-buying measure that three-fourths of voters overwhelmingly approved five months ago. This should be a banner year for protecting the state's endangered lands. Instead, Amendment 1 is becoming a bait-and-switch that would take Florida back — not forward — in saving its natural resources.
Supporters saw Amendment 1 as a way to force lawmakers to boost and stabilize environmental funding after years of Republican cost-cutting in Tallahassee. By dedicating a portion of documentary stamp tax proceeds to land buys and other environmental programs, the amendment will generate $740 million in 2015-16 and $1.6 billion in its 20th year. But even as it pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into the pipeline, lawmakers have cut back. They are proposing paltry sums for land buys and restoration while committing new money to water development and other projects that will not revive the ecosystem.
Even with the new money, Gov. Rick Scott proposed less spending on the environment next year. While his $100 million recommended for Florida Forever is five times what the Legislature proposed, that still would bring the land-buying program only to its level in 2011, the year Scott first took office. There is no serious new money for other big-ticket efforts, such as cleaning up the state's natural springs. And much of the spending under the House plan is not for conservation but for water resource projects and other growth-related spending. The House also wants to spend tens of millions of dollars on grants to farmers to store water and manage sensitive properties.
All told, the Legislature is poised to spend $200 million less on the environment next year — despite having this historic funding source. And lawmakers are using Amendment 1 funds to replace general tax dollars going to the environment. This year, general revenue money accounts for 18 percent of environmental spending. Next year, that figure would fall to 13 percent in the House budget and 8 percent in the Senate budget, representing a loss of up to $136 million in traditional funding. So much for Amendment 1 going above and beyond.
Lawmakers also have sided with U.S. Sugar instead of voters by refusing to allow Amendment 1 to play a new role in the Everglades cleanup. The state's option to buy company land south of Lake Okeechobee is a valuable opportunity to help repair the quality of water filtering through the Everglades. But the company now opposes the deal, and U.S. Sugar and its executives have showered lawmakers with $550,000 in campaign donations for their 2016 races. Money also poured into the state Republican and Democratic parties, with $35,000 going to the Republican senatorial campaign run by Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.
The irony of Amendment 1 is that a tool designed to force the Legislature's hand has become a tool to cheat the appropriations process and subvert the will of the people. This was not entirely unexpected, given the political climate in Tallahassee. But it's a shameful start to what should be a powerful environmental legacy program that has overwhelming support from Floridians.