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Guest Commentary: Dirty water, Amendment 1, voting

By Staff | Mar 2, 2016

The Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment

Ballot Title: Water and Land Conservation – Dedicates funds to acquire and restore Florida conservation and recreation lands

Ballot Summary: Funds 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.

Were you one of the 75 percent of Florida voters who passed Amendment 1 in 2014? Did you expect legislators to return to bipartisan support for designated funds to buy sensitive environmental land for the people of Florida?

Think again.

Aliki Moncrief is executive director of Florida Conservation Voters (FCV), the organization that was formed out of the Florida Water and Land Legacy that shepherded Amendment 1 to its overwhelming win.

On Thursday, Feb. 18 she spoke with the Sanibel League of Women Voters on past and present environmental spending in Florida – and on FCV’s continuing effort to see that the people’s will be done.

Moncrief, a Harvard Law graduate, is a Miami native who was a child in 1963 when a long succession of Florida Governors and Legislatures – from both parties-began to preserve Florida’s natural heritage while also allowing development, the engine of Florida’s economy.

The mechanism they chose was to dedicate one-third of funds collected from real estate transfer taxes to purchase land and water resources – the more development, the more funds available.

Brilliant.

This ongoing ethic was not seen as liberal or conservative, not as a luxury, but a practical way to protect Florida’s quality of life. Over those years, over 2.4 million acres were preserved for the people, lands that:

Safeguard our supply of clean drinking water,

Keep floodplains open so homes are safe elsewhere,

Promote recreation of all sorts,

Ensure migration corridors for iconic species and

Preserve unique and fragile places that nurture human spirits as well as Florida’s unique wildness.

Of the 35 million acres of open land left in Florida, 28 percent is publicly protected. Seventy-two percent is in private hands. Sanibel remembers that our Bob Janes won protection for the Babcock Ranch – a significant step for Southwest Florida.

But in 2009, this bipartisan consensus broke down. Zero funds were directed toward preservation. Zero. This spurred efforts – through Amendment 1 – to mandate spending of real estate transfer funds at previous levels.

Most Amendment 1 voters expected spending to grow and be directed to significant land purchases. Instead, budgets directed those funds to things like salaries and equipment, previously paid for with general funds. If fact, in 2014-15, spending on all environment-related items went down, not up.

Florida Conservation Voters, a privately funded umbrella organization with many member groups, is now taking a long view. Some organizations are suing to enforce the constitutional mandate; FCV’s efforts are directed to education.

Their goal: to reestablish Florida’s bipartisan agreement on a healthy balance of growth and preservation.

Major obstacles lie ahead:

Safe districts. The Fair Districts amendment has not yet achieved a balance in the legislature that reflects the balance of voters in the state. Those legislators need not listen to all voices.

Term limits. New legislators may not have developed a deep understanding of issues, and rely on lobbyists for information. There are 25 lobbyists for every legislator in Tallahassee and most of them do not work for everyday people.

Money. Sixty-eight percent of campaign contributions are made by 1 percent of donors, who usually have an agenda.

A ray of hope: bills pending in the legislature,HB989, sponsored by Rep. Harrell, and SB1168, sponsored by Sen. Negron, would direct significant Amendment 1 funding for 20 years to Everglades restoration and protection for springs.

Part of Everglades restoration is directing water south, so one day there may be fewer toxic releases from Lake O to the Caloosahatchee.

A caveat: in discussion following Moncrief’s presentation, much concern was expressed over the lack of responsibility for agriculture – including Big Sugar – to clean up water from its lands before it reaches estuaries, the Gulf, or the Everglades.

Even the currently approved C43 reservoir will impound excess Lake O water, but have zero effect on its heavy pollutant load.