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Water quality protection and more sought with Amendment 1

By Staff | Oct 31, 2014

With Election Day this Tuesday, a voter decision on one proposed U.S. constitutional amendment for Florida could weigh heavy on our local waterways.

Under ballot title “Water and Land Conservation,” Amendment 1 is considering the dedication of consistent funds to acquiring and restoring Florida conservation and recreation lands. According to the Florida Department of State Division of Elections, voting ‘yes’ on this legislation would provide money to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund “to acquire, restore, improve and manage conservation lands including wetlands and forests; fish and wildlife habitat; lands protecting water resources and drinking water sources, including the Everglades and the water quality of rivers, lakes and streams; beaches and shores; outdoor recreational lands; working farms and ranches; and historic or geologic sites, by dedicating 33 percent of net revenues from the existing excise tax on documents for 20 years.”

Jeremy Frantz, environmental policy specialist for Conservancy of Southwest Florida, presented the facts about the critical amendment proposition at the Fort Myers Beach Library recently.

“Broadly, the purpose of the amendment is to set a consistent funding source for some of Florida’s most fundamental resources, like clean water, recreation lands and places that have a really huge impact on our tourism economy,” he said. “The goal is to take a historical funding source that has been used for these extensive programs and ensure that funding for these programs are at a high enough level.

“In that dedication of 33 percent of the ‘Doc Stamp Tax’ for conservation activities, that portion would not be able to be used in the general fund purpose to balance the budget, which has essentially been happening over the past few years.”

If approved, Frantz stated the amendment’s objectives would not have a financial burden on the taxpayer, as it would not increase taxes now or in the future. In fact, 33 percent of the document stamp tax (the IRS defines it as a tax on documents, instruments, loan agreements and papers evidencing the acceptance, assignment, sale or transfer of an obligation, right or property incident thereto) is less than 1 percent of the total state budget.

“Over the life of the 20 years, it is expected to set aside probably close to $18 billion for conservation,” Frantz said. “On a yearly basis, it is expected to have a really minimal impact.”

Recent history with the economic downturn has decreased funding for conservation. However, an uptick in economic recovery has not provided an upswing in funds.

“As development has increased, we haven’t seen a consistent funding increase for land acquisition,” said Frantz. “In the past, we have seen over 50 percent of the doc stamp going towards programs like Everglades Restoration, land acquisition and management of state lands. In recent years, it has been below 33 percent and, over the next 10 years, it will continue to decline.”

The differential rest of the revenue from the tax has continued to pay for transportation, affordable housing, economic development and education to a lesser degree. Legislators have been able to redirect these funds to general revenue and use as they wish.

“Essentially, what you see is the amount of the document stamp tax going out to general revenue increase,” said Frantz. “Transportation and affordable housing pretty much stays about the same over the next 10 years. But general revenue will continue to increase. (This amendment) ties the hands of legislators.”

Voting ‘yes’ on Amendment 1 provides local benefits. Funds can be allocated to water quality issues that impact waterways like the Caloosahatchee River and our estuaries and, thus, affect our wildlife through red tide events. Of the record 829 manatee deaths in the state in 2013, 33 percent (276) were recorded in Lee County.

Florida’s economy has been known to be driven by tourism.

“And, tourism is really driven by the state of our natural areas,” said Frantz. “We know that our environment is a big reason why people move down here and visit. “

Frantz showed statistics involving visitors to Florida State Parks (2011-12 = 24,983,179 visitors). State parks again saw record-setting attendance with more than 25.6 million visitors in 2013.

Population growth is expected to exceed 24.7 million in the state by 2035.

“There needs to be a consistent funding source,” said Frantz. “It really is one of those fundamental, vital things copied in the constitution, ensuring our kids and grandkids have clean water to drink. We are trying to take a real holistic look at environmental needs throughout the state.”

Endorsements include many media outlets, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Audubon Florida, League of Women Voters, Florida Wildlife Federation, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, Caloosahatchee River Citizens Association and Lee County Board of County Commissioners to name a few.

“The amendment is asking what we want our legacy to be over the next 20 years in Florida,” said Frantz. “Do we want to continue to have polluted waterways, congested traffic and uncontainable growth? Or, do we want to make sure that there is really modest but consistent funding for some of Florida’s most vital natural areas and some of our most fundamental resources?”

Go to www.voteyeson1fl.org for more information.

Amendment 1 overview

– Provides funding to protect water quality in Florida’s rivers, lakes, streams, beaches, and estuaries for future generations.

– Directs one-third of existing fees collected when real estate is sold (the “Documentary Stamp Tax”).

– This will result in over $10 billion to preserve Florida’s wildlife habitat, wetlands, water quality over the 20-year life of the amendment without any increase in taxes.