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Against Voter Wishes, Proposal Would Devote Just 1% of Available Cash to Land Preservation

| March 25, 2015

The Florida House and Senate see things a bit differently when it comes to Amendment 1 money, but neither is keen on devoting much money to land preservation, as voters apparently intended. (Andy Morffew)

The Florida House and Senate see things a bit differently when it comes to Amendment 1 money, but neither is keen on devoting much money to land preservation, as voters apparently intended. (Andy Morffew)

Several senators want their chamber to float more than a proposed $2 million for land purchases in the Florida Forever program, after voters last year overwhelmingly backed an increase in money for conservation efforts.

But for now, those lawmakers will wait to see if the amount can be increased during upcoming budget talks with the House — talks that in part will be handled by Sen. Alan Hays, a Umatilla Republican who says Florida already has enough land in public hands.

Hays on Wednesday assured members of the Senate Appropriations Committee that the $2 million figure for Florida Forever is “a placeholder, a point for negotiations to begin.”

Yet Hays, chairman of the Senate General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, reiterated his contention that there may already be an overabundance of government-owned land in Florida. Hays’ subcommittee has divvied up money under Amendment 1, a ballot initiative that voters passed in November.

“We don’t need to be known as the hoarding-land state,” Hays said. “We need to be known as good stewards of the resources that the people own, whether it be their cash or whether it be their hard assets.”

Hays’ comments came before Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, and Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, withdrew proposed budget amendments Wednesday that would have significantly increased money going from the state Land Acquisition Trust Fund to the Florida Forever program.

The senators were among a number of lawmakers and environmentalists who said voters expect more land acquisition from the estimated $741.2 million that will be generated for land and water issues under Amendment 1.

The House has proposed $10 million for Florida Forever, while Gov. Rick Scott requested $100 million.

An amendment that requires 33 percent of revenue from a real estate tax to be spent on land and water projects is being reinterpreted by the Legislature.

“I just feel we have many, many projects that if we don’t (buy) soon, they will be gone forever,” Altman said “And then we’ll have more very, very expensive capital-improvement projects, retrofits, engineering solutions that may never be able to turn it back.”

The amendment requires 33 percent of the proceeds from a real-estate tax to go for land and water projects.

The funding level is currently projected to generate more than $200 million above what lawmakers allocated for such uses in the current year.

The Senate plan designates $491 million to existing environmental programs, including parks and wildlife management, invasive plant control, water resources programs and debt service.

An additional $50 million would go to natural springs, $25 million for trails funding, $82 million for Everglades restoration, $22 million for the Kissimmee River and $25 million for beach renourishment.

The House, which includes $25 million for the Rural and Family Lands program, $100 million for the Everglades and $105 million for land management, matches the Senate on springs and beach restoration funding.

The House is at $91.6 million for the management of state parks, greenways and wildlife management areas, while the Senate is at $25 million.

Altman had proposed using bond proceeds to generate $350 million for Florida Forever land purchases. That would match the estimated amount of a proposal for the state to purchase U.S. Sugar land in the northern Everglades for a reservoir.

A 2010 deal requires the state to purchase 46,800 acres, of which 26,100 acres would be used for construction of the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir, by Oct. 12. Otherwise, Florida would have to buy an additional 157,000 acres to get the land for the reservoir.

Joyner proposed a budget amendment to raise the land purchase total to $79 million.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said the rush to increase funding for land purchases is “premature at this point in time.”

Simmons, who supports a “rational” purchase of land for reservoirs to clean the Everglades and to protect some of the state’s most endangered natural springs, said lawmakers need to set up a land-acquisition plan.

“I assure you there are targeted acquisitions that I believe need to be made, and I believe common sense requires we make, and that we give the appropriate agencies the ability to study, finalize and complete that plan, whether it’s one year, or a year-and-a-half,” Simmons said. “This is an opportunity that is a lifetime opportunity.”

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said $2 million for Florida Forever is “not responsive to the constitutional amendment.”

Negron said that voters from his district expect significant land purchases that are part of a process to reduce releases of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee into estuaries east and west of the lake.

The concept of the constitutional amendment was spawned as funding diminished for the Florida Forever program.

Florida Forever, which uses bonds backed with revenue from the documentary-stamp real-estate taxes, authorizes lawmakers to spend up to $300 million a year for preservation. But as the economy went sour during the recent recession, so did funding for Florida Forever.

–Jim Turner, News Service of Florida

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5 Responses for “Against Voter Wishes, Proposal Would Devote Just 1% of Available Cash to Land Preservation”

  1. Sherry Epley says:

    Typical twisted manipulation of the voters mandate by this corrupt travesty of an administration!!! To hell with the environment, with clean, affordable drinking water! Let’s not ruffle the feathers of the billionaire 1% who are such large contributors to our campaigns. . . we wouldn’t want “Big Sugar” ( huge contributor to Marco Rubio) to be upset!

    Here’s the tip of the iceberg regarding pollution in and near the Everglades. . . this from Wikipedia:

    “In 2007, during a drought, state water and wildlife managers removed thousands of truckloads of toxic mud from the lake’s floor, in an effort to restore the lake’s natural sandy base and create clearer water and better habitat for wildlife. The mud contained elevated levels of arsenic and other pesticides. According to tests from the South Florida Water Management District, arsenic levels on the northern part of the lake bed were as much as four times the limit for residential land. Independent tests found the mud too polluted for use on agricultural or commercial lands, and therefore difficult to dispose of on land.

    Through early 2008, the lake remained well below normal levels, with large portions of the lake bed exposed above the water line. During this time, portions of the lake bed, covered in organic matter, dried out and caught fire.[26] In late August 2008, Tropical Storm Fay inundated Florida with record amounts of rain. Lake Okeechobee received almost a 1.2 m (4-foot) increase in water level, including local run-off from the tributaries. This quick rise, mixed with largely polluted run-off from local farmlands, killed thousands of fish.

    In 2013 heavy rains in central Florida resulted in high runoff into the lake; rising lake levels forced the Army Corp of Engineers to release large volumes of polluted water from the lake through the St. Lucie River estuary to the east and the Caloosahatchee River estuary to the west. Thus the normal mix of fresh and salt water in those estuaries was replaced by a flood of polluted fresh water resulting in ecological damage.”

  2. Edman says:

    God forbid we preserve land. Let’s develop all that we can and then wonder why the aquifers are dry and the land is polluted. Our “representatives” could then ask us for more tax money to address the dire problems they allowed. I am so sick of our political system and worried for my grandchildren’s future.

  3. JimBob says:

    No action to be taken until the developers tell the legislators how to divvy up the pie. Is anyone surprised?

  4. Kevin says:

    The majority of voters expect that this fund will be used for continued new land acquisition. Opponents to new land acquisition say Florida has enough preserved land citing 27% of the state’s land is already in public hands but this does not guarantee protection in perpetuity as would land under conservation easements or fee simple purchase for open space preservation. We need a balance from the unbridled development that has occurred over the past half century. Protecting woodlands and meadows from development is as critical to water protection as protecting wetlands as these forested or grasslands act as filters and recharge zones for our aquifers. The percentage of land in public hands likely includes a large percent that could never be developed anyway (estuaries, swamps, etc) so the percentage is misleading. The true measure would be the percentage of develop-able land that is protected from development. Please do not sell out the voters of
    Florida who voted for something entitled one thing and now is being reinterpreted by the special interests who are using their lobbyists to alter the will of the electorate. Land conservation is a key component of economic vitality and growth. Don’t pave it, preserve it! Keep Florida natural!

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