Voters suggest Amendment 1 funds were supposed to be spent acquiring land

Cattails supplant sawgrass on 100,000 acres of the Everglades, fed by the flow of phosphorous from the sugar industry, vegetable farms and suburban sprawl — and blocking the historic flow of water and wading birds.
Cattails supplant sawgrass on 100,000 acres of the Everglades, fed by the flow of phosphorous from the sugar industry, vegetable farms and suburban sprawl — and blocking the historic flow of water and wading birds.
Published March 26, 2015

John Hendershot was one of 4.2 million Floridians who voted for Amendment 1, helping it pass by an overwhelming 75 percent majority in November.

For him, there was no mistaking what the ballot measure meant.

"I was convinced that the purpose was to set aside money primarily for environmental lands acquisition purchases and to preserve and protect environmental lands," said Hendershot, a 61-year-old Tampa psychologist. "It was intended to add to, and not to replace, existing funds that were already intended for environmental purposes."

Expectations among Hendershot and many other Amendment 1 supporters were running high as lawmakers began negotiating next year's budget. Advocates estimated Amendment 1 would produce $10 billion over 20 years. Next year alone, the measure is projected to add $741 million in revenue.

But when state lawmakers released the proposed Senate and House budgets last week, the intent of Amendment 1 was suddenly murkier than the Everglades after a tropical storm.

The Senate's budget set aside $2 million for the Florida Forever program, which was created in 1999 to fund public land acquisition and was initially authorized to spend $300 million a year. The proposed amount represents an 84 percent cut from this year's budget and $118 million less than what Gov. Rick Scott proposes.

The House says it has set aside $205 million for Florida Forever, but most of that money is actually tied to other projects, such as reservoirs, springs restoration and other programs, leaving only about $10 million for the land acquisition program.

Both budgets have exasperated sponsors of Amendment 1, who had hoped to return to prerecession Florida's $300 million spending levels for land acquisition.

"The Legislature greatly exceeded my expectations for mischief," said Clay Henderson, an Orlando lawyer and former president of the Florida Audubon Society, who helped write the amendment. "There's no question about what the emphasis was. It was Florida Forever. We were clear about that."

What did voters in favor of Amendment 1 think would happen after their victory?

"My wife and I were expecting the funds … would be used to purchase land and keep that land free of developers," said Hal Cohen of High Springs.

"All Amendment 1 funds must be used to buy the last remaining parks, wildlife habitat, and natural areas that make our state such a great place to live," said Kris Pagenkopf of Gainesville.

Some voters say amendment money would be better used for capital improvement projects that help maintain water and land. Taking that more flexible view are local governments looking for help with infrastructure costs and agricultural interests such as U.S. Sugar and Associated Industries of Florida.

"Amendment 1 proceeds should be used to protect the state's water supply, in terms of both water quality and water quantity," said Pete Snyder, a 61-year-old Lakeland resident who is the executive director of the Florida Turfgrass Association. "Too many of Florida's water bodies are impaired due to nutrient loading and other pollutants."

Lawmakers insist that they are fulfilling the wishes of voters by expanding the scope of the amendment to support capital projects like new reservoirs that also please agribusinesses. Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said he reads the intent of the amendment more broadly so that it includes a full range of suitable purposes, such as local government water infrastructure projects and maintenance of existing state lands.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, who chaired the Senate committee allocating Amendment 1 money, said his first priority is to follow the intent of voters. But he said the state already has more than enough land, 9.5 million acres, and already has trouble maintaining it.

"We don't want to be known as the 'hoarding land state,' " Hays said. "We need to be known as good stewards of the land we own."

Henderson said he wrote the ballot measure as tightly as possible, but needed to include language that met legal requirements.

"You can always second-guess it," he said. "We've been scrutinizing it ourselves. Someone suggested to me that we shouldn't have had a semicolon in one place. That's how arcane this has become."

But he said it's clear that lawmakers have gone astray reinterpreting the intent of voters. The Senate budget uses Amendment 1 money to pay the salaries of state workers for the parks and forest services, Florida Fish and Wildlife enforcement officers and employees at the Division of Historical Resources and Cultural Affairs, which frees up money for lawmakers in the state's general fund.

"It's the Lottery two-step," Henderson said. "They're using Amendment 1 to pay for existing services."

Voters approved the Florida Lottery in 1987 with language specifying that proceeds would be used for education. But lawmakers diverted money that had been paying for education to other purposes and the lottery made up the difference. Henderson said that is what's happening with Amendment 1 revenue.

Unlike the Lottery, Amendment 1 isn't new revenue. It's existing revenue from documentary stamps. Voters simply designated that 33 percent of it pay for acquiring, restoring, improving and managing conservation lands.

Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, and Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, filed amendments to the Senate's $80.4 billion budget that would steer more money to Florida Forever. But both withdrew the amendments on Wednesday after getting assurances from Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, that negotiations to increase Florida Forever funding are just beginning.

Though he didn't elaborate, Lee said lawmakers will end up putting more money back into Florida Forever.

"I would be surprised if the amount of money spent on land acquisition under Amendment 1 doesn't go up substantially," Lee said. "I say that not based on any insight into where the House position might be or where (Senate President Andy Gardiner) might be, but just what I'm hearing generally."

Henderson said he was encouraged that lawmakers were "stepping back."

"This was the first day that these questions about Amendment 1 were asked, so we'll wait and see," he said, when asked if his group is considering legal action. "We're hoping cooler heads will prevail, so we'll watch this carefully."

Ultimately, anyone can sue if they believe lawmakers haven't followed the constitutional amendment. It would be up to the Florida Supreme Court to decide what Amendment 1 means.

Voters like Hendershot, the Tampa psychologist, think they already know.

"The individuals we elected to govern the state appear to be marching in lockstep, in the opposite direction, contrary to the will of the majority of voters," Hendershot said. "Whether or not the majority of voters will pay attention to this unfortunate turn of events and vote accordingly in the future remains to be seen."

Contact Michael Van Sickler at Follow @mikevansickler.