Florida voters sent an emphatic message to Tallahassee in November with overwhelming passage of the constitutional amendment dedicating money to environmental conservation. The 75 percent approval of Amendment 1 requires documentary stamp revenue, generated from real estate sales, must now be set aside for the preservation of land, water and wildlife natural resources. The Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott must now live up to the wishes of the electorate.
That amendment mandates about $10 billion over two decades be spent on conservation, not the meager amounts that legislators and the governor have allocated in recent years -- after diverting money from the trust fund established for this purpose to other purposes. The Legislature must now pass a bill by the July deadline implementing the amendment, an exercise fraught with the usual pitfalls found in the offices and hallways where lawmakers negotiate.
Environmental organizations are already poised to challenge legislation that fails to meet the amendment's intentions. Their wariness is warranted by history.
Under Scott, the Department of Environmental Protection focused on shedding state land only to discover sharp opposition that forced the agency to drop those plans. The DEP's targeted acreage for disposal included land at Lake Manatee State Park and Terra Ceia Preserve State Park.
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That effort preceded the gutting of Florida's well-designed growth management laws and the funding of Florida Forever and regional water management district, the latter money going to land acquisition programs that conserved acreage worthy of conservation. Florida Forever once thrived on an annual infusion of $300 million annually, but got slashed repeatedly -- to $20 million in 2013.
Voters did well to wrestle control of conservation away from a Legislature and administration unfriendly to preservation. Florida's future depends on water quality, in particular our beaches. Commercial and recreational fishing, birding and other forms or ecotourism are central to our economy. The state's unspoiled and sensitive lands are a treasure too valuable to squander.
But Floridians cannot rest assured that the Legislature will abide by the spirit of Amendment 1. We only need to remember that the Florida Lottery became established based on the promise that education would benefit. Yet lawmakers simply diverted funding for schools into other budget items, thus zeroing out the impact of the lottery.
Will we see that again with conservation money? We must hold our elected representatives accountable. Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, indicated that "pain" will ensue when lawmakers write the bill implementing the amendment.
That pain should come at the expense of lawmakers' pet projects, not the environment. Conservation programs already ensconced in the state budget should not be placed under Amendment 1's umbrella.