While the Legislature grapples with composing policies to meet the requirements set into the state constitution with November's passage of Amendment 1, various parties are lining up to grab a piece of the huge money pie now set aside for environmental protection and conservation. This political football is bouncing all over the place as lawmakers query the public about how to prioritize spending the newfound conservation riches.
This week Gov. Rick Scott tossed out a big one, signaling another advance on the evolution of his views on the environment. Once the architect of the steep decline in state spending on the protection and restoration of fouled waterways and critical habitat for endangered species, Scott now proposes designating $150 million in the coming budget year to help reverse the decline of the fragile Everglades.
For a governor accused of slashing spending on environmental lands by 95 percent during his first term and dismantling growth regulations, this is a positive shift. To his credit, he also budgeted $120 million for Everglades projects this fiscal year.
Now the governor can afford such generosity for a massive restoration effort long idle or delayed by political obstructions and funding roadblocks.
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Some 75 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 1 in November. The measure dedicates one third of the revenues raised through documentary stamp taxes -- paid during property transactions -- to land and water conservation and protection.
Scott dipped into this new honey pot, not general revenue, for the Everglades. He also proposes lawmakers designate a quarter of the amendment money to restoration of this critical and damaged River of Grass. That could mean an investment of $5 billion over the life of the 20-year amendment, should the Legislature agree.
This certainly serves the purpose behind Amendment 1, and is an appropriate and commendable expenditure proposal. In his budget blueprint, unveiled Wednesday, Scott pledged to fully comply with the amendment, even including additional funding for such environmental initiatives as conserving land for the Florida panther and springs. Estimates put the amendment set-aside at $22 billion over those two decades. That amount has generated great interest. But two powerful politicians are promoting the idea that water and land conservation money also be spent on repairs and maintenance of municipal water and sewer systems. Both House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam expressed that position, but amendment supporters are crying foul since that violates the spirit of the measure and the will of the people. We agree. Infrastructure was not cited in the amendment's language.
But Crisafulli has stated, "Now it's up to us to interpret the intent" of voters as the Legislature establishes a policy strategy for implementing the amendment. And he also stated that water and sewer projects fit "the intent of the amendment."
The Legislature has a long history of bucking the will of the people on amendments, ranging from numerous exemptions to the 1976 Sunshine Amendment that ignore the spirit of the law to the 2010 Fair Districts Amendment designed to prevent gerrymandering to rig elections. Lawmakers lost a court case invalidating several congressional district maps.
Amendment advocates note that the amendment does not require implementing language, only appropriations to current conservation programs. Legal action might be necessary should the Legislature attempt to divert this dedicated environmental money elsewhere -- particularly to programs that the state already funds, thus freeing up dollars for other projects. At that point, then the governor must demonstrate that his pledge to the amendment is not hollow.