Protecting the best of Florida
Florida environmental groups have launched a campaign to pass a constitutional amendment that would establish a dedicated funding source for land and water conservation. The benefits of this worthy idea would extend far beyond woods, beaches and springs. Florida's continued growth and economic prosperity depend on its wonderful quality of life, which is based largely on its natural assets. Water shortages, polluted rivers and paved-over beaches won't create jobs or attract businesses.And lawmakers have shown they can't be counted on to protect Florida's treasures. They've all but abandoned Florida Forever, the land-buying program that relied on a share of the documentary tax stamp on real-estate transactions. Given the economic downtown, a cutback was understandable. But lawmakers cut funding by nearly 98 percent — at a time when land prices plummeted and tracts could be acquired at bargain prices. At the same time, lawmakers systematically gutted growth management regulations that protected taxpayers from being stuck with the costs of new roads, schools and other costly requirements generated by far-flung development. So it's necessary for voters to act. The proposed amendment would not raise taxes but simply ensure that conservation funding was continued as envisioned when former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez launched Preservation 2000 in 1990. The effort, which later became Florida Forever, also was strongly supported by Govs. Lawton Chiles, Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist. If the amendment makes it to the ballot and is passed by voters in 2014, it would dedicate one-third of net revenues from the existing tax documents to conservation, including the protection of water sources, restoring the Everglades and acquiring environmentally valuable lands. The measure does not mandate a spending level. When fewer land transactions occur, funding would drop. When real estate activity rebounds, revenues would as well. The document tax is projected to generate $10 billion over 20 years — a reasonable amount given the importance of Florida's natural heritage to its economic welfare. The state, for example, spends about $7 billion a year on transportation. Beyond safeguarding residents' quality of life and averting costly growth problems, conservation creates jobs and attracts visitors. Ecotourism is the fastest-growing part of the state's $65 billion-a-year tourism industry, and the Florida park system alone has an annual economic impact of more than $1 billion. Notably, the amendment allows the conservation funds to be used to buy development rights, a useful tool that enables ranchers and others to continue agricultural operations. Indeed, Florida Forever proved to be an efficient way to protect both landowners' rights and wildlife habitat. The task of getting the signatures of at least 676,811 registered voters to get the amendment on the 2014 ballot won't be easy. But everyone should see the value of making certain we keep Florida the natural paradise that makes it such a great place to live and work.