We're nearly halfway through the legislative session and the Florida House and Senate are releasing their respective budget plans. Many important budget issues are still in flux.
One issue that shouldn't still be in flux is funding for the Land and Water Conservation Amendment, which passed in November with 75 percent of the vote. Amendment 1 received more votes than any other item on the ballot — by far. One could call it a mandate.
The amendment language was clear, and voters understood what they were voting for. The title of the amendment was crystal clear:
"Water and Land Conservation — Dedicates funds to acquire and restore Florida conservation and recreation lands."
Sounds a lot like Florida Forever.
It requires that one-third of an existing revenue source — the documentary stamp tax — annually be placed in a trust fund and used for conservation and recreation land acquisition, restoration and management. Again, sounds a lot like Florida Forever.
A brief history:
Recognizing the importance of protecting and preserving our natural resources, the Florida Legislature passed two different land acquisition and restoration programs, Preservation 2000 and its successor, Florida Forever. For its 10-year duration, Preservation 2000 was fully funded. Florida Forever was fully funded at $300 million a year for its first nine years.
In 2009, Florida Forever received no funding due to the budget crisis. Supporters of the preservation program understood that the recession necessitated taking a year off. But the following year only $19 million of the $300 million was funded, followed by nothing in 2011 and 2012, $10 million in 2013 and $17 million in 2014.
How did such a popular program that goes to the very heart of what makes Florida special get on the chopping block and never regain its intended level of funding?
Frustrated citizens took matters into their own hands to help preserve the quality of life for Floridians and our nature-based tourism. The impetus for Amendment 1 was to restore funding for Florida Forever and Everglades restoration to protect and preserve our natural habitats and water resources.
So now we're waiting for the Legislature to follow the state Constitution and implement the will of the voters.
It's not looking good.
In a deliberate snub to voters, the House and Senate released drastically different and equally offensive funding plans.
The Senate plan puts aside a paltry $2 million for Florida Forever. Two million? Are you kidding me? After voters passed the amendment with 75 percent of the vote?
How insulting! Voters should be outraged.
To put it in perspective:
The total 2015 budget is expected to be somewhere between $77 billion and $80 billion. Documentary stamp revenues are estimated to be $2.16 billion.
One-third of the total doc stamp revenue required for Amendment 1 equates to $720 million. That represents less than 1 percent of the total budget.
So it was reasonable to expect that Florida Forever would be fully funded at $300 million and funding for Everglades restoration could be $50 million to $100 million.
That would leave more than $300 million to boost conservation and recreation land management, protect our springs, restore natural systems, enhance public access to conservation lands and pay debt service on conservation bonds issued.
Apparently that is only reasonable here in the real world, not in the Tallahassee bubble. When a large pot of money appears, there's a feeding frenzy for a piece of the action. And ironically, those who voted against the ballot initiative are among the first ones with their hands out.
It's amazing how creatively they craft their projects to try to fit the parameters for the Land and Water Conservation dollars. But it's like putting a square peg in a round hole — it just doesn't fit.
Unfortunately, legislators seem to be accommodating their wishes while ignoring the voters.
Legislators are also playing shell games by including items such as septic tanks, wastewater treatment plants and state agency operations that have been traditionally been funded with other revenue sources.
The chairman of the Senate committee that determined this level of funding believes Florida owns enough land. While that's an interesting — albeit misinformed — personal opinion, it's also a moot point since the Constitution now requires land acquisition.
The coalition that jumped through all the hoops to get the amendment on the ballot and passed now has to beg the legislators who ignored their pleas before to honor them now.
The difference is they now have 4,230,858 voters standing with them.
There's still a long way to go in the budget process. Let's hope that means something when the full House and Senate vote on the final budget.
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.