|The President’s Hoot|
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
Seventy-five (75%) percent of Florida voters took matters into their own hands in 2014 and approved Amendment 1, the Florida Water and Land Conservation (“FWLC”) Initiative. The ballot title for the amendment stated: “Water and Land Conservation -Dedicates funds to acquire and restore Florida conservation and recreation lands.”
The FWLC Initiative amended Florida’s Constitution to require that no less than 1/3 of documentary stamp tax revenues be deposited into the Land Acquisition Trust Fund (“LATF”). Apparently, the idea of conserving environmentally sensitive lands using dollars from the LATF was still lost on legislators, as they continued to ignore Florida Forever, the state’s premier land-conservation program. Historical funding levels of $300 million a year declined to zero, and while the legislature has allocated $100 million in two of the last three years, given that the LATF receives roughly $900 million a year, Florida is still are not where it needs to be on protecting our lands before they are gobbled up by development.
Recent US Census data showed that Florida gained over 241,000 residents from July 2019-July 2020, resulting in the second largest population increase of all states. Documentary stamp taxes- those paid on home sales and mortgages- are running far ahead of 2019 despite Covid-19. Yet, once again, we are hearing “leadership” in Tallahassee calling for reductions in environmental spending at a time when we need more, not less, funding. While certain aspects of the Florida budget may be experiencing reduced revenue, the primary source of funds for land conservation and restoration is booming. And remember, those funds are to be allocated to land conservation and restoration not pursuant to the discretion of the legislature, but by constitutional mandate of the People.
Finally, we must stop playing the shell game that has plagued our State since the constitutional amendment approving the Florida lottery was passed in 1986. Residents were sold on approving the lottery with the idea that proceeds would go to a state trust fund to support education. While those funds did make their way into the education budget, the legislature reduced existing education funding and diverted those funds to other areas, thus negating the benefit of the additional lottery revenue for education.
The same is happening to LATF. The five water-management districts across the state, charged with protecting Florida’s water resources, have reduced their ad valorem rates by half over the last decade or so, because the legislature diverts LATF dollars to projects that should be funded by the districts. The legislature then claims that there aren’t enough dollars to adequately fund land conservation and restoration. It’s the lottery shell game all over again.
It does not require a giant leap of logic to understand that monies deposited into the “Land Acquisition Trust Fund” should be used to adequately fund “land acquisition.” Florida is growing and developing at a precipitous rate. Because Florida lacks economic diversity, land development supports a large portion of our economy, but no one grouses about a park or nature preserve; no one complains about wanting more Dollar Trees and fewer real trees; no one muses that if only we had more gated subdivisions and fewer wetlands our quality of life would be better. Yet, there are those in Tallahassee who hope you aren’t paying close enough attention to realize that is the version of Florida they are implementing through their actions.
Last year, State Senator Debbie Mayfield earned important roles on appropriations committees. From that perch, she fought for increased funding for environmental programs. We thank Sen. Mayfield for those efforts and remind her that this year our environmental challenges are no less important and ask that she, along with Rep. Erin Grall, fight for greater protection for land and waters. If we don’t encourage our legislative delegation to honor the constitutional mandate of the LATF, we are doomed to repeat history at the expense of our environment and quality of life.