Voters will decide this fall whether a 20-year-old conservation trust fund should be closed to the Legislature's prying hands.
Florida's Water and Land Legacy was the state non-profit organization that collected 696,294 valid signatures as of Jan. 23 to put the amendment on the November 2014 ballot.
Proceeds from the state's documentary stamp tax, charged in real estate transactions, have been used for the last two decades to protect the state's unique ecosystem, but since 2009 the Florida Legislature has been transferring it into the state's General Revenue Fund and using it for other projects.
Sanibel Island. PHOTO BY CAROL ORR HARTMAN.
"Since 2009, funding for land conservation in Florida has been slashed by 97 percent," said Will Abberger, director of the Trust for Public Land's Conservation Finance service. "Florida needs a dedicated, sustainable source of funding to protect our drinking water quality and water quality of our lakes, rivers, and streams, and wildlife habitat."
Abberger said that as far back as the 1990's the Legislature regularly appropriated $300 million a year for land conservation alone, but those funds have been cut to nearly zero in the last four years.
Projections from Florida's Water and Land Legacy indicate that the amendment would secure $5 billion for conservation over the next 10 years.
Although the amendment doesn't increase taxes or create a new program, it does insulate the current trust fund from being accessed by the Florida Legislature for other purposes that don't protect the environment. In fact, specific language in the amendment states, "the fund shall not be or become commingled with the General Revenue Fund of the state."
"They will have to use the money for land and water conservation purposes only," said Abberger.
Rae Ann Wessel, director of Natural Resource Policy at the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, said the amendment is important to ensure that funding is available for preservation and management across the state and on the island.
"Florida is the only state in the nation that for three years has been recognized for its park system," said Wessel. "I think what is important about this is there are no other places like the parks and wild spaces we have left in Florida."
Southwest Florida's ecosystem and economy are interconnected, she said. And that was demonstrated over the summer when increased levels of pollutants in the Caloosahatchee River kept some visitors away.
"If you're supporting the natural system that works, you're supporting the economy," said Wessel.
Tourists come to Southwest Florida and Sanibel Island to enjoy the beaches, outdoor activities, and the unique ecosystems, and those visitors might decide to go someplace else if those natural resources aren't protected.
"These are the things that make projects like preservation, conservation, and restoration pay for themselves, not in an obvious way sometimes, but it feeds the economy of Florida which is predominately underwritten by tourism," said Wessel.
The Water and Land Conservation Amendment would need 60 percent of the votes statewide to pass, and if approved, would go into effect on July 1, 2015.
For more information, visit floridawaterlandlegacy.org.