As expected and feared, new legislation allows Amendment 1 monies to be spent on wastewater and other municipal and county water projects that already enjoy funding sources. The governor, Senate and House all agree with that interpretation of the language in the highly popular land and water conservation commitment now enshrined in the state constitution.
By stretching the meaning of the amendment beyond the spirit of the measure as promoted by advocates of the citizen initiative, current legislation allows dollars to flow to local governments for water treatment projects that would be built anyway. By saving on those expenditures, governments can then fund non-conservation programs.
The amendment title states, "Water and Land Conservation -- Dedicates funds to acquire and restore Florida conservation and recreation lands." Furthermore, the ballot language specifically states, "Funds the Land Acquisition Trust Fund" in order to "acquire, restore, improve and manage conservation lands ..."
Manatee County's point person on conservation, Charlie Hunsicker, agrees that a portion of Amendment 1 money should be spent on county water projects.
The Parks and Natural Resources director also told Herald reporter Kate Irby last week the three funding requests the county submitted to the state for amendment dollars have existing money sources. And all three projects, designed to improve the county's water quality and increase the drinkable supply, would move forward since they are already budgeted.
Manatee County would be under no obligation to spend those savings, amounting to $4.8 million, on land conservation measures.
This sidesteps the will of the people. Had voters realized the state's broad interpretation of the amendment's language would include wastewater treatment plants, would the measure have passed with 75 percent of the vote?
The authors of that amendment wrote as restrictive a measure as possible, fearful the Florida Supreme Court would have refused to put it on the ballot had the language handcuffed the Legislature. Some environmental organizations certainly oppose the state's liberal interpretation.
State Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, is sponsoring House legislation titled Implementation of Water and Land Conservation Constitutional Amendment (HB 1291). The 191-page proposal and two other bills establish trust funds to distribute the amendment's money. Similar legislation is moving through the Senate.
While storm and wastewater management are important ingredients to land protection and restoration, two Manatee County projects veer away from Amendment 1's intent. One expands storage facilities for treated water, and the other provides better control of the quantity of water flowing in and out of the Lake Manatee Reservoir.
Since lawmakers and the governor decimated previous conservation spending and land acquisition under the Florida Forever program, voters dedicated one-third of the revenue from the state's documentary stamp tax to environmental preservation and conservation. The amendment's mandate is expected to pump $22 billion over the next two decades.
That kind of money brings the same sort of temptation that ruined voter intent with the passage of the state lottery. In 1986, voters authorized a lottery through a constitutional amendment on the promise that proceeds would enhance public education through additional significant monies.
But instead of increasing the amount spent on education above historic levels, the Legislature replaced general revenue spending with lottery proceeds -- thereby robbing education.
Current legislation addressing Amendment 1 appears poised to adopt a similar strategy. If these bills pass as now written, which appears inevitable, voters should lobby lawmakers and hold them accountable for project approvals.