Florida voters, 964,941 of them, recently signed petitions giving Floridians the right to vote on a state constitutional amendment that will ensure a stable funding source for important water and land conservation initiatives throughout the state.
Thanks to the successful petition drive, the measure known as the Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment will appear on the ballot this November. Here's why this is such a critically important ballot measure:
It's not just sunny skies and warm temperatures that make Florida so attractive to residents and visitors. Natural beauty, abundant wildlife, and clean water for drinking and recreation are just as important. But those natural assets are not guaranteed to last forever. As Florida becomes more and more desirable as a retirement and vacation destination, pressure to develop unspoiled areas increases, threatening the very resources that make the state so attractive.
For years, Florida governors and legislators understood the need for a balance between development and conservation. Accordingly, they allocated funds for acquisition of environmentally sensitive lands to protect their natural beauty, habitat value for wildlife, and water storage and filtration capabilities. There was widespread, bipartisan support for programs like Florida Forever, which received funding from an existing real estate tax known as the "doc stamp."
That was then and this is now
However, that was then and this is now. The current governor and legislature have, in recent years, slashed funding for Florida Forever by 97 percent and diverted those funds to other uses. They went so far as to direct that no new lands could be acquired for conservation unless an equal amount of "surplus" state land was divested. For that reason, several acres in Cayo Costa State Park (the island just north of North Captiva) were recently put up for sale by the state. That approach to conservation makes no sense.
Alarmed at the recent turn of events in Tallahassee, a coalition of conservation groups organized to place a constitutional amendment on the November 2014 ballot that would guarantee a stable source of funding for water and land conservation -- by allocating one third of existing "doc stamp" revenues through 2035 for those purposes. The legislature would not be able to divert those funds. In order for the amendment to pass, a 60 percent yes vote is required in November. The Water and Land Conservation amendment would generate about $10 billion for conservation over the next twenty years with no tax increase to voters. This amount is less than 1 percent of the Florida state budget.
Sanibel and Captiva residents come through
Here on Sanibel and Captiva, several groups including Committee of the Islands (COTI), Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), and the Sanibel League of Women Voters participated in the petition drive with impressive results. Thanks to Richard Johnson at Bailey's and the folks at the Sanibel Farmers Market who let volunteers set up tables, we were able to collect hundreds of signatures from local residents - and some from visitors from other parts of Florida.
Projects of local interest that stand to benefit are Everglades restoration and the flow-way to the south for Lake Okeechobee outflow waters, two critical projects that are in need of serious funding. If passed, the Water and Land Conservation amendment will put Florida back on the right track in protecting its rich natural beauty, wild places, and clean water.
It's up to Florida voters now. Come this November, we'll all have a chance to make a difference.
-To read our past commentaries on island issues, visit coti.org. We invite your input on this and other issues affecting our islands. Send us an email at coti.org or visit Committee of the Islands on Facebook.