For more than 20 years, the Florida Legislature viewed funding the state's model environmental lands protection program as every bit as important as providing sufficient money for public education, roads and other programs that Floridians rely upon daily. There were no second thoughts. It had become part of Florida's heritage, thanks to Govs. Bob Martinez, Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush, who knew Florida's natural beauty and treasurers were the reason new residents and businesses flocked to the state. And they knew it would be self-defeating not to preserve sensitive land that protected drinking water supplies and enabled residents and visitors to enjoy the outdoors. But then the Great Recession hit, younger lawmakers who didn't properly value Florida's environment took office after others were term-limited, and Gov. Rick Scott, a relative newcomer to the state, was elected. Environmental protection was put on the chopping block. Growth management laws were gutted. Funding for the state's model land preservation program — Florida Forever, previously known as Preservation 2000 — was cut more than 95 percent.
The downward spiral slowed last legislative session, when the Legislature authorized $75 million for Florida Forever at Scott's request. That was somewhat deceiving, because $50 million of that must come from the sale of state lands, but the governor does appear to be more concerned with protecting the state's natural riches. Yet who knows what will happen next session? There are no longer guarantees that Florida's environment will be adequately safeguarded, and that should concern all residents, as well as business leaders, who know Florida's natural beauty underpins its appeal. This is why voters need to enthusiastically back Florida's Water and Land Legacy Campaign — a drive to place a proposed amendment to Florida's constitution on the November 2014 ballot. If adopted, the amendment would, for the first time, guarantee a state source of funding for land preservation and other environmental programs in Florida. The effort is spearheaded by some of the most distinguished environmental groups in Florida — including the Trust for Public Land, Audubon Florida, the Nature Conservancy, Florida Wildlife Federation and 1000 Friends of Florida. This is not some land grab or an attempt to dilute private property rights. Indeed, it protects landowners' rights, allowing the state to buy lands outright that should be protected. The Water and Land Conservation Amendment would require no new taxes. Rather, it would mandate 33 percent of net revenues from the documentary tax paid on real estate transactions be used for conservation land purchases, trails, beaches, protecting drinking water sources, encouraging fish and wildlife programs, and paying debt service on bonds, among other efforts. And just as important, the Legislature would be barred from diverting the funds for other purposes, as it has done with specific trust funds. The amendment is expected to generate about $10 billion over its 20-year life. It would sunset in 2035. But first things first: The Florida Supreme Court has to approve the ballot language — which shouldn't be a problem, in our view. The review is scheduled for Sept. 19. Obtaining the number of required registered voters' signatures is the bigger hurdle, and that's where citizens can help. The campaign (florida waterlandlegacy.org) needs 683,149 verified signatures to make the ballot — as of last week, the count stood at 119,305. The statutory deadline is Feb. 1, 2014, in order to make the general election ballot that November, but the campaign isn't taking chances, shooting for Nov. 30 to be safe. “This will be the most important vote on land conservation and the environment in our lifetime,” says Will Abberger, the campaign's chairman and the director of conservation finance for the Trust for Public Land. “We need Floridians to sign the petition and send it in and contribute so we can get on the ballot.” The Legislature in recent years hasn't shown the appreciation for Florida's environment that past Legislatures — Republican and Democrat — did. Voters have the chance to take matters into their own hands. Signing the petition to gain a spot on the ballot — and pushing the proposed amendment to victory with at least 60 percent of the vote in November 2014 — would indeed leave a legacy for our children, grandchildren and future generations.