FROM THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
By JIM TURNER
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 19, 2015………. The Senate doesn’t intend for Florida to acquire much land in the first year of increased funding under a voter-approved constitutional amendment aimed at land and water conservation.
The Senate General Government Appropriations Subcommittee on Thursday released a $714.2 million proposal, which was absent local projects and includes just $22 million for land acquisition, to meet the funding requirements of the November referendum known as Amendment 1.
Sen. Alan Hays, a Umatilla Republican who is chairman of the subcommittee, said the state might already have enough land within its preservation inventory.
Meanwhile, backers of the amendment were even more critical of the Senate plan then they had been of a House offering released Tuesday.
“It’s hard for me to understand what the Senate doesn’t understand about the words Land Acquisition Trust Fund,” said Will Abberger, a leader of the effort to pass the constitutional amendment.
The amendment specifically said money would go to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, and the House and Senate are advancing legislation that would pool all Amendment 1 money into the trust fund.
“It is pretty clear that Sen. Hays intended to leave parks and wildlife habitat out of his budget,” said Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper, a lobbyist on environmental issues.
“They have done everything that they can to shift agency expenses into the Constitution,” Draper continued after the meeting. “If they could find a way to pay for the towels in the executive washrooms with Amendment 1 they did it.”
Hays said the will of the voters is “open to interpretation” and that he’s been flooded with email and phone calls from people claiming the state doesn’t need to buy more land.
“There was a lot of other things listed in that constitutional amendment other than land acquisition, and we have funded a lot of other things other than land acquisition,” Hays said.
Of the land acquisition funding, $2 million would go to the Florida Forever program, and the rest would be used to pick up easements along the Kissimmee River to help reduce pollutants flowing into Lake Okeechobee.
The bulk of the budget proposal continues existing conservation programs, including agency costs and debt service for the Florida Forever program, Everglades restoration and water-management districts.
The Senate in the coming weeks will negotiate spending details with the House, which released a proposed $772.1 million package.
The Senate measure also drew opposition from within the subcommittee as Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, said he intends to offer amendments that could increase land-acquisition funding.
“The people of Florida overwhelmingly want to preserve what we have left of Florida,” Altman, who voted for the amendment, said after the meeting. “This whole initiative was based on acquiring land and improving it for the purposes of preservation.”
Draper and Abberger said they’re hopeful that Gov. Rick Scott, who has proposed $100 million for Florida Forever, will use his office to increase the land-acquisition funding.
“This is an opportunity for him (Scott) to make good on a promise that he made in his campaign,” Abberger said.
The House plan has $10 million for Florida Forever.
Janet Bowman of The Nature Conservancy said she would “certainly prefer” the House plan, which includes increasing from $5 million to $25 million the annual funding for the Rural and Family Lands program and includes $105 million for land management.
The Senate plan lists $25 million for trail management but doesn’t include money for the Rural and Family Lands program.
The constitutional amendment, approved by about 75 percent of voters, lays out for 20 years an increase in funding for land and water conservation.
The amendment requires 33 percent of the proceeds from a real-estate tax to go for land and water projects. The funding level is currently projected to generate $741 million in next year’s budget, more than $200 million above what lawmakers allocated for such uses in the current year.
Both the House and Senate offer few directives on how the increased funding will be used for individual local programs.
But both proposals double funding for the state’s natural springs to $50 million and offer $25 million for beach restoration.
The House, meanwhile, has put up $100 million for Everglades restoration. The Senate is at $82 million.
The House is at $91.6 million for the management of state parks, greenways and wildlife management areas, while the Senate is at $25 million.
The House also offers $25 million for wastewater plans in the Florida Keys. The Senate doesn’t address the Keys wastewater issue.