By MARGIE MENZEL
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Support for a ballot proposal that would set aside money for water and land conservation is so strong that many opponents are all but resigned to its passage. But that doesn't mean they aren't worried about its impact on Florida's budget.
The proposed constitutional amendment would require the state to dedicate a portion of real-estate tax revenue over the next 20 years for environmental preservation. It's estimated the proposal would generate $10 billion to $19 billion from the already-existing tax, with the money going to buy or restore areas crucial to Florida's water supply, such as the land around springs, and to natural systems that have been despoiled, such as the Everglades.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the measure, said Amendment 1 was polling at 78 percent this summer, easily clearing the 60 percent support needed to become law.
"The numbers show this is going to pass," affordable-housing advocate Mark Hendrickson said last week.
Hendrickson was leading a webinar on Amendment 1 for the Florida Housing Coalition, answering the questions of people who work with the group. He said affordable housing programs would be vulnerable if Amendment 1 passes because they get funding from documentary-stamp taxes, the same pot of real-estate fees that would be used for land and water projects.
"The most likely place you look is to the other trust funds that are funded with doc stamps, and that means transportation and housing," Hendrickson said, adding that housing trust funds have a history of being raided by the Legislature. "We will be more at risk, and significantly at risk, if this passes."
Hendrickson made a point of noting that he supports environmental programs. And Will Abberger, the campaign manager for Florida's Water and Land Legacy, the group behind Amendment 1, said in a separate interview that conservationists have worked "arm in arm" with housing advocates.
"The tragedy is, it shouldn't be environment versus housing," said lobbyist Karen Woodall, who works on homelessness issues and has long sought more funding for health and human-services programs. "We have all these false battles."
But backers say Amendment 1 is the only way to force the Legislature to spend money on the conservation efforts after the Florida Forever program has been shortchanged in recent years.
"The Florida Forever program was decimated in 2009, going from $300 million per year down to $17 million this year --- the year in which we had a $1 billion surplus," said Chuck O'Neal, chairman of the League of Women Voters' natural resources committee. "Florida is facing a crisis with the quality and quantity of water, not only coming out of our springs but also as a source of drinking water for our current population and those who have yet to arrive."
The measure has created some odd alliances. Former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat, and former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican, both support it. The Tampa Bay Times joined Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, in opposition. There are legislative leaders on both sides.
Gaetz predicted the amendment would pass "because it's coated in all kinds of warm fuzzies." But he warned that "what it means is before we can spend the first dollar on education or health care or law enforcement or economic development or the arts or any other critical needs of the state
if this passes, we have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the purposes of Amendment 1, which substantially include purchasing large tracts of private land and taking them off the tax rolls."
McCollum, however, said the measure would fund needs that cannot wait for lawmakers to come around.
"Many of our rivers, our lakes, our natural springs are clogged right now, and the water-management districts don't have the money to clean it up," McCollum said. "Sometimes legislatures get other priorities in their minds at the moment, and they don't provide a consistent source of funding for some of the critical things like this that really are needed now --- not 10 years from now, (or) 15 years from now, when it may be too late."
But Woodall, while understanding the environmentalists' frustration, said Amendment 1 also would shrink that portion of the doc-stamp money that goes to general revenue.
"(Lawmakers) don't tend to cut tax cuts and sports subsidies," she said. "They tend to cut health and human services. Somebody's going to get cut if additional revenues aren't raised."
In short, Amendment 1's opponents say the constitution is no place for legislative budgeting, while its backers say lawmakers have left them no choice.
“We should only amend our constitution sparingly and thoughtfully," Steve Halverson, chairman of the Florida Council of 100, a group of business leaders, said in a statement. "The provisions of Amendment 1 can be dealt with legislatively.”
The Florida Farm Bureau and Florida Chamber, also opponents, collaborated on a 2014 voting guide in which they wrote, "This amendment would also encourage other special interests to try to get their funding placed in the constitution, potentially harming our elected state leaders’ ability to govern in a fiscally responsible way."
Abberger, however, called lawmakers "out of touch with their constituents on the issue of water and land conservation. ... Unfortunately, we had to go the citizens' initiative route because of that disconnect between the voters and the Legislature."
If the measure passes, lawmakers will have much to say about its implementation.
But Graham, an Amendment 1 supporter, said the Legislature traditionally has protected Florida's environment – which, is critical to the economy.
"History should give you some comfort," he told a caller to a Sept. 17 town-hall meeting. "Is it also necessary for citizens to be vigilant politically? ... Yes, and I'm glad you're talking to legislators about that."