By Pegeen Hanrahan, P.E.
We’re all familiar with one spot or another in Florida that used to be untouched, and is now nearly untouchable.
Our untouched natural areas make Florida the place we love, and we must leave a legacy for future generations that will continue to support strong tourism businesses and nature-based recreational activities like fishing, swimming, hunting, hiking, biking, boating and bird watching.
Our natural resources are tremendously important to Florida. Without clean water to drink, and without the sparkling lakes, rivers, beaches and springs that so distinguish our state, how will our economy and our quality of life thrive?
Florida’s Water and Land Legacy (www.floridawaterlandlegacy.org) campaign is a citizen-led petition drive to let Florida voters decide in 2014 whether to adequately fund protection of our water and natural resources. The proposed constitutional amendment will let Floridians choose whether to set aside one-third of an existing revenue source – the documentary stamp tax on real estate transfers – and dedicate it to resource protection.
It’s important to note that the amendment does not create a new tax, and it does not create any unwanted government mandate. Instead, the amendment sets aside a very, very small portion of the state’s huge budget to protect water and land resources, and land purchased with the funds will only be bought voluntarily from willing sellers. Because Preservation 2000 bonds will be paid off in the coming years, with a reduction of $250 million in debt service in 2013 alone, this measure will not represent a net increase in the amount or percentage of documentary stamp taxes currently allocated to these purposes.
Just five years ago, this amendment would not have been necessary. However, in recent years state funds for land and water conservation have been cut drastically. The cutbacks are largely due to the terrible recession, but they’ve been far deeper than those seen in most other state programs.
For almost two decades prior to 2009, the state set aside $300 million per year for Florida Forever, and also provided $100 million per year to match federal dollars for Everglades restoration. Since 2009, the Florida Legislature has provided a total of only $23 million for Florida Forever, a 97.5 percent reduction in funding. State appropriations for land management and ecological restoration, including the Everglades, have suffered similar declines.
If approved on the November 2014 ballot, the amendment would take effect July 1, 2015, and would dedicate one-third of the net revenues from the existing excise tax on documents for 20 years to restore the Everglades, protect drinking water sources, and revive the state’s historic commitment to protecting natural lands and wildlife habitat through the Florida Forever Program.
Under the amendment, the monies deposited into the Land Acquisition Trust Fund will remain separate from the State’s General Revenue Fund. The amendment would provide more than $5 billion for water and land conservation in Florida over the next ten years and an estimated $10 billion over the 20-year life of the measure, without any tax increase.
When given the opportunity, Floridians have a strong history of voting to protect water and land resources. Since 1994, they have approved five of six proposed constitutional amendments relating to conservation and the environment, with average support of more than two-thirds of the voters. Meanwhile, voters in Florida’s cities and counties have approved 82 local land conservation and park measures over the past decade and a half, often by even larger margins.
Hillsborough County voters have been even more enthusiastic supporters of protecting environmental lands. More than 70% of voters supported a 0.25 mill tax for four years specifically to purchase wildlife habitat in a program called Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection ( ELAPP) – one of the first-ever instances of citizens voting to tax themselves for general habitat purchases.
When the original ELAPP neared expiration in 2008, 79% of citizens voted to continue the special tax levy. Hillsborough has been able to continue purchasing land because prices have plummeted – but the long-time partnerships with state and regional water management districts have disappeared.
Land and water conservation programs have enjoyed bipartisan support over the decades. Governors Graham, Martinez, Chiles, Bush and Crist all enthusiastically supported programs ranging from Everglades restoration to Preservation 2000 to funding for land management. Democratic and Republican leaders in the Florida Legislature also consistently supported funding for land and water conservation. Key organizations supporting the Florida Water and Land Legacy Campaign include the Trust for Public Land, Audubon Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, 1000 Friends of Florida, Defenders of Wildlife, and others.
Public support remains strong for
improved protection of our lakes and rivers, bays and beaches, springs, forests, swamps and trails. These lands are precious to our quality of life, providing the clean drinking water we need to survive and creating a legacy to pass on to our children and grandchildren. What has been lacking in recent years is an established funding source for these efforts, and creating such a source is the goal of the Legacy campaign. This is certainly an achievable goal.
Across the country, voters are standing up for green spaces. Last November, three-quarters of Alabama voters agreed to extend their state’s “Forever Wild” program to protect wildlife habitat and water resources. Voters in 21 states had the opportunity to approve no fewer than 57 state and local land conservation initiatives. Of those initiatives, 81% were approved.
Florida can and should do the same.
While the vote won’t occur until November 2014, we need help now to make it happen. The campaign must obtain the signatures of at least 676,811 registered voters to put the amendement on the ballot. We are asking you to help by gathering signatures, donating money, helping with the campaign, requesting a speaker, or otherwise pitching in. More information is available online at www.floridawaterlandlegacy.org or you can call (850) 629-4656.
At stake is nothing less than the very future of the water and land that make Florida exceptional.
Pegeen Hanrahan is an environmental engineer who served as mayor of Gainesville from 2004 to 2010. She is serving as the campaign manager for Florida’s Water and Land Legacy.
Originally published Winter 2013