Gov. Rick Scott said it was “the right thing to do” for the Cabinet on Tuesday to approve the sale of four closed jails and three other sites to raise money for future land preservation.
However, when asked after the Cabinet meeting whether he would support or oppose an amendment in November that would cement funding for land conservation into Florida’s Constitution, Scott avoided directly answering the question.
“All the amendments, the public has the opportunity to vote, just like I do,” Scott replied. “So we’ll see how it comes out.”
For some conservationists, the stance by Scott isn’t necessarily bad.
Eric Draper, Audubon Florida executive director, said he’d prefer Scott to remain “ambivalent” on the issue. An alternative is to join the chorus of legislators who have already criticized the amendment as an improper constraint on the budget.
“That’s a winning message for us, let the voters decide,” Draper said.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has argued that “legislating via constitutional amendments” doesn’t work. And Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, contends the amendment will shift too much land into state control.
The proposed amendment, backed by a group called “Florida’s Water and Land Legacy, Inc.,” seeks to set aside 33 percent of the state’s documentary stamp tax revenues — fees paid when real estate is sold — for 20 years to acquire conservation and recreation lands, manage existing lands, protect lands that are critical for water supply and restore degraded natural systems.
The amendment, which requires approval from 60 percent of voters to pass, could generate $10 billion over its life, the group says.
Draper, along with other conservationists, backed the Cabinet’s action on Tuesday. Still, they continue to say the funding remains.
The idea for the amendment was spawned as funding diminished for the Florida Forever program. Florida Forever, which uses bonds backed with revenue from the documentary stamps, authorizes lawmakers to spend up to $300 million a year for preservation.
The last year funding approached that mark was in 2008.
During the 2012 session, state lawmakers set aside $20 million for land conservation and established a surplus land-sale program within the state Department of Environmental Protection.
This year lawmakers included $12.5 million for the purchase of land to protect springs and water resources, or to provide military land buffering, as part of the $77 billion budget Scott signed June 2.
The budget also includes a line for up to $40 million to also be spent on Florida Forever, with the money to come from the sale of non-conservation lands.
Scott and the Cabinet — Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi — on Tuesday approved the sale of sites in Monroe, Volusia, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Hendry and Broward counties. Those sites include the former Broward, Glades, Hendry and Hillsborough correctional institutions, which were closed as part of a consolidation in 2012.
The sales are expected to fetch the state $27 million, which would bring the sale of non-conservation land this year to nearly $44 million. It’s not clear if the additional $4 million can be spent in the budget year that begins July 1.
–Jim Turner, News Service of Florida