Credit: DEP report to Senate Appropriations Committee
Despite a constitutional amendment in 2014 mandating a vigorous program to buy and preserve sensitive land in Florida, funding for the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund has been unreliable and by most accounts not what voters had in mind.
On Monday, state Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orange County Democrat, reintroduced her annual effort to require in state statute that at least $100 million of land-acquisition funds be devoted annually to Florida Forever, the state’s premier land-buying program.
Stewart has tried before, amid complaints from civic groups that legislators often ignore the constitutional mandate and leave the fund in anemic condition.
“Currently there is no set funding amount in statute for the Florida Forever programs. Instead, each year through appropriations, a funding amount is decided,” Stewart told a Senate panel. “The voters had voted overwhelmingly for much more than that [$100 million]. I think the $100 million is a good start toward what they voted for. If we can get that into the budget, that would be great.”
Paul Owens, president of 1000 Friends of Florida, testified at the hearing that $100 million falls short of the Legislature’s “moral obligation” to honor the will of voters who adopted the 2014 constitutional amendment.
He said the annual amount should be closer to $300 million on average and could be considerably higher because the revenue source – documentary-stamp taxes on real estate transactions – is setting record highs. Still, he said, a minimum guarantee improves on a typically bad situation.
“There is a practical reason to have a guaranteed funding level for a program like this [instead of …] uncertain and sporadic revenues from year to year,” Owens said. “There is $400 million [proposed] in the budget this year for land conservation – but it was just three years ago, there was $33 million, and five years ago just $12.5 million.”
“And finally, there is that moral obligation to fund the program, given that three-quarters of state voters in 2014 supported the land and water conservation amendment to guarantee investments in land conservation,” Owens said. “Passing this bill would begin to honor the will of voters and fulfill that moral obligation.”
Lindsay Cross, water and land policy director with Florida Conservation Voters, testified that Floridians love their natural resources now as much as they did in 2014.
“We have a responsibility to protect what makes Florida special,” Cross testified, citing Florida’s beaches, natural springs, forests and wetlands. “Protecting water and land is overwhelmingly popular with Florida voters. … Think of the $100 million as a floor.”
Sen. Stewart’s bill , which passed the panel on a 5-0 vote, also prohibits funds designated for land acquisition from being used for administrative and support services.
Two lawsuits since 2015 allege that legislators have wrongly used the Land Acquisition Trust Fund for purposes other than the ones mandated by the constitutional amendment.
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