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JUST SAY NO TO AMENDMENTS; AMENDMENT 1: CONSERVATION LANDS

Few acts are more essential to preserving Florida's economy, its way of life and its beauty than protecting its natural resources. But there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it, and carving a specific income stream into the Florida Constitution for one budget priority would send the state down the wrong path.

Amendment 1 would dedicate one-third of the documentary stamp tax proceeds on land transactions in Florida to an environmental trust fund for 20 years. The money would be used to buy and restore conservation and recreation lands, a sweeping mandate that would encompass everything from restoring the Everglades to cleaning up parks and beaches, managing forests and historic sites and purchasing development rights to limit the build-out of working farms and ranches.

The measure would not increase taxes but dedicate a fixed amount from the existing excise tax on documents for conservation purposes. The frustration fueling the campaign is understandable, coming years after state lawmakers cut conservation spending to a tiny fraction of the $300 million funded annually a decade ago.

But the Constitution is the state's framework for governing, meant to cover the major aspects, from civil rights and the separation of powers to territorial issues. It is not meant to double as a back-door means to circumvent the lawmaking process and write line items into the annual state budget.

The Times editorial board opposed a similar measure in 2006 that called for a constitutional carve-out for an antismoking effort aimed at Florida's youth. While promoting healthier lifestyles is certainly in the public interest, the Constitution is not the right vehicle for picking budgetary winners and losers. What makes smoking or the environment more worthwhile public causes than addressing, say, trauma care, crime or housing?

As a practical matter, the move could backfire and ultimately hurt more than help. Though it could significantly boost funding for conservation from current levels - especially in the early years, to $648 million annually in 2016 - the long-term impact depends on future governors and Legislatures. A dedicated funding source relieves the pressure on lawmakers to make conservation a priority. It all but removes the environment from annual policy debates. The trust fund will likely act as a maximum funding ceiling, not a minimum floor, as lawmakers look for ways to pay for other priorities. And the broad nature of allowable expenses guarantees that state and local agencies would use the fund as a honey pot for a grab bag of projects they are already funding now through an array of existing taxes. The amendment could easily give rise to the same budgetary tricks that brought it about.

Budgets are statements about the public's priorities, and they should remain a byproduct of the political process. By rejecting this measure, Floridians would help preserve the Constitution for its intended purpose and keep the pressure on lawmakers to adequately fund conservation needs as they arrive. On Amendment 1 on the Nov. 4 ballot, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting no.

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