Tough economic times and a penchant in Tallahassee for "easy solutions" to close budget gaps have left the state's environmental treasures and wildlife programs in the dumps. What these recreation and conservation lands need is a stable, dedicated source of funding.
Enter the Florida Water and Land Legacy Campaign, a coalition that includes the Trust for Public Land, Audubon Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, 1000 Friends of Florida, Defenders of Wildlife and other groups that want to preserve Florida's natural beauty -- and its clean water -- for generations to come.
The campaign will be gathering signatures of registered voters -- it will need at minimum 676,811 certified signatures -- to put the issue on the ballot in 2014. If voters agree, and there are many reasons they should, the program would raise about $10 billion over 20 years -- without any new tax or a tax increase.
It would simply require the Florida Legislature to keep its paws out of the trust funds meant for environmental and parks programs -- guaranteeing at the very least that one-third of the revenues from the existing excise tax on documents during the sale of property goes toward designated environmental programs. That tax is now collected, but it's not being used for its intended purpose.
Once approved by voters, the amendment would take effect July 1, 2015, and the money would be dedicated to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund until 2035 to clean up Florida's River of Grass, the Everglades, and to protect drinking water sources, support fish and wildlife programs and revive the state's commitment to buying and protecting ecologically fragile land and habitats through the Florida Forever program.
Florida desperately needs a stable program to protect its most precious resources.
In the past three years, the Legislature earmarked only $23 million for Florida Forever -- the state used to spend 10 times as much on land preservation. This year, legislators approved only $8.5 million for water protection and land conservation in a $60-billion budget.
As this new coalition points out, that pittance is less than two-hundredths of one cent that will go toward conservation from every dollar spent in the state budget -- less than $1 for each Floridian.
"When it comes to dedicating funding to protect Florida's environment, the Great Recession has led to a complete depression. State funding to protect our most precious natural resources has slowed to a trickle," Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, said in a press release this week announcing the grassroots amendment effort. "This amendment is not a tax increase. It is the dedication of an existing funding source back to its historic purpose. Passing this amendment will ensure Florida's long-term traditional conservation values are secure and protected from short-term political pressures."
For sure, this amendment is not a tree-hugging exercise in futility. It would protect the land and water that Florida needs for its economy to grow. And Florida has a long, nonpartisan tradition in environmental protection. No one wants to go to a beach, river or lake where the water is toxic, and protecting the Everglades will be critical to the state's ability to ensure safe and clean drinking water for South Florida.
If you're interested in helping with this campaign, sign up at FloridaWaterLandLegacy.org, or call 850-629-4656.
It's past time to protect Florida from the political winds.