Conservationists: Lawmakers Ignoring Intent Of Florida Water, Land Amendment

Apr 2, 2015

Supporters wore buttons to raise awareness about Amendment 1
Credit Florida Water and Land Legacy / Instagram

Among the issues Florida lawmakers are wrestling with is how to spend a pot of money set aside by last year’s Water and Land Conservation Amendment. Voters passed Amendment 1 with overwhelming support after a long and expensive campaign by conservation advocates. But as the House and Senate hash out the details, those advocates are worried the Legislature is ignoring their intent.

Amendment 1 Easily Passed Into Law

Aliki Moncrief remembers the shock she felt on election night last November. She didn’t have to wait long to find out Florida voters had passed Amendment 1 by a sweeping 75 percent.

"We thought we were going to be up till midnight as the results rolled in around the state," Moncrief said. "It was a such a resounding victory. It was such a resounding statement that voters were making, that we at 8 o'clock in the evening learned that we had won."

Moncrief is Executive Director of Florida’s Water and Land Legacy, a coalition that campaigned for the passage of the Water and Land Conservation Amendment. Now, the Florida Constitution mandates 20 years of state funding for conservation, including the purchase and management of land. For the upcoming budget year, the mandate is expected to generate more than $700 million from a tax on property exchanges.

Conservationists Say Spending Not Lining Up

But organizers like Moncrief are concerned about how the Legislature proposes spending those dollars.

"They’ve outlined their initial take on how Amendment 1 should be spent, and unfortunately, I have to say, we’re disappointed in what we’re seeing," Moncrief said.

For a long time, Florida Forever was the state’s conservation land-buying program, but in 2009, the state eliminated its annual $300 million funding. Moncrief says Amendment 1 was meant to revive land-buying on a large scale.

On Thursday, the Senate passed a budget with $35 million for Florida Forever and $20 million for restoration of the Kissimmee River. And as of Wednesday, the House was proposing $10 million for land acquisition. Moncrief says both are paltry compared to Florida Forever’s historic budget.

"It’s disconcerting. It’s disappointing because of the amazing support voters had for Amendment 1," Moncrief said. "The amendment itself references 'land acquisition' 18 times. So, it’s a little hard to believe anyone can read the amendment and not put at least some money into Florida Forever and land acquisition."

Umatilla Republican Alan Hays is the chief budget writer for environmental spending in the Senate. He leads the opposition to reinstating land-buying funds, saying Florida owns adequate conservation acreage. Instead, Hays is diverting Amendment 1 funds toward water projects that support increased development, among other things.

Advocates Consider Legal Action

Conservationists argue that kind of allocation is not in line with Amendment 1. Clay Henderson is a New Smyrna Beach attorney who helped draft the amendment.

"It’s not good news," Henderson said. "It may be in Florida that we have a schizophrenic electorate or a bipolar electorate. So they passed Amendment 1 with 75 percent but returned to office the same people who didn’t like land conservation to begin with."

Henderson says he will consider legal action if the legislature veers too far from the amendment’s intent.

Hendersaid said, "Our expectations were very clear. We hoped that this would restore funding for Florida Forever, for the Everglades, and for springs protection: things that are listed in the amendment."

The advocates say they’re hoping to sway lawmakers before a final budget passes. About a month remains in this year’s legislative session.

You can follow Anna Hamilton @annawham.