Almost three-quarters of state voters said yes last month to a constitutional amendment requiring lawmakers to spend one-third of the annual revenues from the state's real-estate transaction tax on water and land conservation. Amendment 1 directs more than $600 million to that purpose next year, growing to more than twice as much annually by the time the measure expires in 2034.
The successful citizens' petition drive to put the amendment on the ballot, and the resounding vote in favor of it, took place amid a rising tide of concern among Floridians about depleted land-buying programs; the sudden and shocking decline of the Indian River Lagoon, natural springs and other waterways in the state; and the need to maintain momentum on restoring the Everglades.
But new House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican, recently signaled that leading lawmakers may have other plans for the Amendment 1 funds. Crisafulli told the Palm Beach Post that he believes permissible uses for the dollars include municipal water and sewer projects -- a category where the Legislature allocated $88.5 million this year from other sources.
The speaker said it's up to lawmakers to "interpret the intent" of the amendment. But the language in the measure is not ambiguous: It directs the state to allot funds "to acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands."
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That broad category includes, according to the amendment, "wetlands and forests; fish and wildlife habitat; lands protecting water resources and the water quality of rivers, lakes and streams; beaches recreational lands; working farms and ranches; and historic or geologic sites."
Missing from this list is any reference to hometown water and sewer projects. As Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida, told the Post, "I didn't see any mention of paying for leaky pipes in the amendment."
Voters passed Amendment 1 to guarantee investments in water and land conservation. If lawmakers just use the funds it provides as a pot of money to cover pork barrel projects, they'll be thwarting the will of three-quarters of the electorate.
This would be unfaithful but, unfortunately, not unprecedented. After 63 percent of voters passed the Fair Districts amendments in 2010, barring lawmakers from drawing congressional and legislative districts to benefit candidates or parties, they got caught doing exactly that. Judges in separate cases ordered them to redraw their maps for state Senate and Congress.
Gov. Rick Scott pledged during his campaign, "We are going to invest in the environment." The governor should honor that promise, and use his clout to make sure lawmakers don't stand in the way. They need to listen to voters, and take yes for an answer.