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  1. Environment

Floridians get the importance of preserving more land. Time for lawmakers to come around.

The state continues to fight in court over the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative, which voters overwhelmly supported in 2014. (Times files)
The state continues to fight in court over the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative, which voters overwhelmly supported in 2014. (Times files)
Published Jul. 18, 2019

Conserving more land shouldn't be this difficult, given that Floridians overwhelmingly support the idea.

In 2014, three-quarters of voters agreed to set aside taxes to buy and preserve sensitive lands. Political wonks call that kind of one-sided victory a mandate. It's a battle cry, an environmental "Oorah!"

The popularity makes sense. Anyone who has lived here long enough has seen development push farther into the state's remaining wilderness. More roads, houses, strip malls and box stores.

Millions of newcomers are expected to cram into our already busy state in coming decades. Voters understand the urgency. They appreciate that protecting wetlands and open spaces will keep Florida healthy and livable. They know it's a good investment, like a 401(k) that pays out forever.

RELATED COVERAGE: Preserve more wilderness. It's good for business.

Finding land to preserve is easy. The state keeps a list and anyone can nominate a project. Enlarge a park. Expand a basin that supplies the state's drinking water. Buy a tract critical to migratory birds. Protect land linked to the state's history. Pay more farmers to preserve their land instead of selling to developers. Same for ranchers. This isn't about government taking property. If owners don't like the price, they don't have to sell or can negotiate a better deal.

So why has buying land become as difficult as spotting the state's elusive skunk ape?

The state used to buy land nearly every year, until lawmakers decided they knew better. They diverted funds to other uses, using the sour economy of the late 2000s as an excuse, if they bothered to justify it at all.

The lack of land purchases prompted grassroots groups to push for the constitutional amendment. Politicians weren't doing what the people wanted, so voters took matters into their own hands.

What was known as Amendment 1 steers 33 percent of revenues from a tax on real-estate documentary stamps to a land acquisition fund. It was one of the most popular amendments in recent Florida history.

Tallahassee leaders didn't care. They don't like it when people rise up and try to do their job for them. They dug in, saying the amendment's language doesn't require them to buy land. Instead, their lawyers have argued in court that the money can be used for agency expenses, salaries and to manage or improve existing public lands.

Last year, a Leon County Circuit judge ruled against the lawmakers. They appealed — and kept sweeping money for other purposes.

Since Amendment 1 passed, lawmakers have used $200 million a year for the Everglades, $64 million for a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area, $50 million for natural springs and $5 million for Lake Apopka, the News Service of Florida reported. Those may be worthy causes, but they all predate Amendment 1. Lawmakers have used little of the money to buy new land.

The tax should raise more than $900 million this year. Several groups that championed Amendment 1 worry that lawmakers will divert more of it to pay for pet projects that have nothing to do with the environment, let alone buying land.

They point to how lawmakers have funded all kinds of things using proceeds from the Florida Lottery, which was set up to enhance school funding. And they routinely plunder the state's affordable housing trust funds.

The legal wrangling has again exposed how voting to amend the state's Constitution isn't the best way to handle such matters. Ballot language must be simple enough for voters to understand, but that leaves it open to interpretation and attack.

Ideally, lawmakers should make the laws. It's tidier that way. But too often Tallahassee politicians defy their constituents on vital issues, forcing them to take the drastic measure of trying to revise the Constitution.

The case is now with the 1st District Court of Appeal, which heard arguments Tuesday. Whatever the court decides, Floridians already grasp that preserving more land is vital to the state's future. It's time lawmakers got on board.

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

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