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Tuesday, Mar 31, 2015

State lands amendment doesn’t hold water


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Florida's Water and Land Legacy Campaign announced Thursday that it has collected enough signatures of Florida voters to qualify for Supreme Court review in the hopes of getting its proposed constitutional amendment onto the 2014 ballot.

The measure would require 33 percent of documentary stamp revenues -- amounting to at least $10 billion -- to be used exclusively for land acquisition, with the goals of Everglades restoration, protecting drinking water sources, and increased spending on public lands over the next 20 years.

Is a constitutional amendment necessary for these goals?

About one-third of Florida acreage is under state ownership or in public use. The question becomes, how much is enough? And, to what end?

Florida is the first two-time Gold Medal winner of the nation's award for best state park system, with 160 parks spanning 700,000 acres and 100 miles of beach. And although some lament decreased spending toward state land purchases, considering the fiscal climate of the past many years it seems these programs have done considerably better than many others.

Bonds floated to pay for Preservation 2000, Save Our Rivers, and Florida Forever are finally being paid off. It is arguable that the state can't afford to properly manage the public land it owns now much less if it continues to add acres that become permanently eliminated from local tax rolls.

The recent payoff of about a quarter of a billion dollars is as much an opportunity to reduce the revolving debt taxpayers shoulder each year as it is an opportunity, according to proponents of this measure, to borrow more money on the state credit card.

Florida's Department of Environmental Protection was recently assigned A ratings from Fitch for Everglades Restoration, Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever revenue bonds, which are all secured by a portion (63.31 percent) of state-collected documentary stamp taxes, the very tax that this amendment would further tap.

How does an additional $10 billion compare to what has been spent already on Everglades and land buying up until now? According to DEP, about $7.2 billion has been spent to date on land acquisition and conservation easement purchases, with more than $1 billion allocated through the Save Our Everglades Trust Fund for land acquisition between 2000 and 2011.

Out of curiosity, we calculated what things would look like today if this amendment were already constitutionally mandated. What we found was that -- if anything -- funds toward land acquisition could go down under such a mandate.

Based on the 2011 Florida Tax Handbook in fiscal year 2011-12, more than 33 percent of doc stamp collections were spent on land acquisition and related debt service; and in fiscal year 2010-11, nearly 40 percent of doc stamp collections served this purpose. Even in 2009-10, when doc stamp collections were down by a staggering 43 percent from the previous fiscal year, land acquisition consumed a hefty 36 percent of these collections.

Compare this to doc stamp funds allocated to the Transportation Trust Fund: These allocations dropped from 28 percent of doc stamp collections in 2007-08 to 8 percent the following year.

If land acquisition and conservation efforts are already receiving funds at the desired level, even in terrible fiscal climates, why wage a constitutional amendment campaign to maintain it?

Is it problematic to bond ratings to constitutionally mandate funding levels for land acquisition from the same pot of money that is currently used to secure existing bonds?

And, regardless of where one stands on public land acquisition as a goal, doesn't a constitutional mandate for a certain threshold of funding defy the logic and purpose of having a legislature revise the state budget each and every year, where lawmakers and their constituents weigh available funds against ever-changing priorities?

We assume there are more questions we don't know to ask; but for those in the know, keep a close eye on this one. The last major land purchase the largest in Florida's history was one not to be repeated.

Peter Schorsch, a political consultant based in St. Petersburg, publishes and edits the Florida political blog Readers can contact Schorsch at Karen Cyphers, PhD, is a public policy consultant, researcher and mother to three girls.

This column was written with help from Karen Cyphers.

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