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  1. Opinion

Florida should re-invest in protecting sensitive lands | Column

It’s time the Florida Legislature follow the intent of the voters and recommit to spending $300 million a year on the Florida Forever land preservation program.
Paula Dockery of Lakeland served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years. [Paula Dockery]
Published Nov. 8

Happy Anniversary to Florida’s Water and Land Conservation Amendment!

It was five years ago that 75 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment One to our Florida Constitution, requiring hundreds of millions of dollars each year to go toward water and land conservation.

Wow, time sure flies when you’re being rebuffed.

You could say it’s been a rocky relationship between the supporters of Amendment One and the Republican-controlled Legislature.

First, money was diverted to state agency expenses that the Legislature would have had to fund prior to the amendment passing. Kind of reminds me of the Florida Lottery shell game with education funding.

Next, the Legislature spent tax dollars in court to keep from funding Florida Forever, the popular land acquisition and water resource protection program. Then legislators spent more of our money appealing the court decision.

This year, under a new governor, Ron DeSantis, there was an effort to spend some — but not all that’s required — on environmental purposes, with most going to the Everglades. While environmentalists — and average Floridians — applaud this expenditure, it does not relieve the Legislature and the governor of their responsibility to fully comply with the intent of the constitutional amendment.

In the 2019-20 budget, $319 million was spent on Everglades protection, a reservoir project, springs protection and Lake Apopka. Florida Forever received $34.5 million, or roughly 10 percent of its original yearly funding before the amendment passed.

To put this in perspective: Florida’s annual state budget is $89 billion (with a B). One-third of all documentary stamp revenue collected in the budget year is required to go to water and land conservation efforts. Florida Forever was the existing program when this amendment was crafted.

This yea,r the documentary stamp tax is estimated to be $2.76 billion. One-third of that is over $900 million.

Even if we were to credit DeSantis and the Florida Legislature for the $319 million for environmental funding in addition to the paltry $34.5 million for traditional Florida Forever projects, where is the rest of the $500 million plus?

Lawmakers are still using Amendment One money for cost shifts and for debt reduction from past bond issues.

Prior to Florida Forever, the state had a land acquisition program called Preservation 2000. Started under Gov. Bob Martinez, this 10-year, $3 billion program was funded every year at $300 million.

The first six years of Florida Forever, the successor to Preservation 2000, funding under Gov. Jeb Bush was also at the $300 million fully funded level. In 2006, the funding was double that, at $609 million, with $300 million for Florida Forever projects and $309 million to purchase a specific large tract of land — the Babcock property.

In Gov. Charlie Crist’s first two years in office, Florida Forever was fully funded, and in his third and fourth years, because of the Great Recession, it was funded at zero and $15 million. Promises were made that funding would be restored when the economy improved. Those promises were broken.

The real damage started under Gov. Rick Scott, who signed eight annual budgets funding Florida Forever at zero, $8.4 million, $20 million, $12.5 million, $15 million, zero, zero and $100 million during his two terms in office.

Instead of the $2.4 billion that would have fully funded Florida Forever, Scott allowed only $155.9 million over eight years to protect and conserve our natural resources.

It’s worth mentioning that the last four years of measly conservation spending under Scott occurred after Amendment One passed.

It’s also worth noting that the state budget was $48 billion in 2001 when Florida Forever was fully funded —quite a bit less than the $91 billion projected for the current budget year.

We’re five years into the 20 years of funding required under our state Constitution due to the passage of Amendment One. What’s the Legislature’s plan — let the clock continue to run out while it ignores the voters and our Constitution?

As the state gets more developed, land gets more expensive to buy and our water resources get more depleted and degraded. Our quality of life gets diminished as shortsighted elected officials squander our opportunities for the sake of their political ambitions.

Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, has filed SB 332, which would provide a stable annual funding floor of $100 million for Florida Forever. It also would prohibit using these dollars for state agency expenses.

On our anniversary, Stewart’s bill passed through a Senate committee unanimously. Thank you, Sen. Stewart.

Now let’s get that funding floor up to $300 million and get the representatives, senators and governor to uphold their vows.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She is now a registered NPA. PBDockery@gmail.com.

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