Published in Tampa Tribune on June 17, 2015: The state budget that Florida lawmakers will vote on Friday amounts to a brazen betrayal of the public's trust. Months after voters overwhelmingly approved spending hundreds of millions in additional money to protect endangered waters and lands, legislators are poised to spend less on the environment than before Amendment 1 was on the ballot. This violates the intent of the voters, who should remember before the next election the name of each lawmaker who supports such a callous disregard for their express wishes.
Supporters sold Amendment 1 as a way to force lawmakers to boost environmental funding after years of Republican cost-cutting in Tallahassee. The constitutional amendment won approval in November with 75 percent of the vote, and it sets aside one-third of the tax on real estate documents for conservation efforts ranging from land purchases to restoration programs. A louder message could not have been sent, yet lawmakers pretend not to hear it.
While Amendment 1 should have generated an additional $300 million for environmental spending, the 2015-16 budget siphons money away from the environment to other areas and uses the new money to replace it. The $17.4 million lawmakers budgeted for the Florida Forever land-buying program is nowhere near the $300 million the state used to spend and not even one-fifth of the $100 million spent the first year Gov. Rick Scott took office. The $47 million to clean up the state's natural springs is a minimum opening bid and falls short of what the governor proposed last year.
Lawmakers found millions to restore beaches along the gilded shores of Marco Island, Longboat Key and Boca Raton, but they put no serious money into cleaning up leaky septic tanks and other sources of groundwater pollution. They blew tens of millions in Amendment 1 money on salaries and overhead, and on sweetheart deals that will pay land barons for storing water when the state could do it more cheaply.
In what should be a record year for the environment, lawmakers propose spending $1.5 billion — some $60 million less than last year. And the Legislature replaced general tax revenue that had already been going for the environment with new money under Amendment 1. General revenue committed to the environment would drop more than $92 million next year, falling to less than 13 percent of the budget compared with 18 percent this year.
This bait-and-switch is the main reason why the Tampa Bay Times editorial board recommended voting against Amendment 1 last year, and now legislators have confirmed our worst fears. A referendum that was born in response to the Legislature's callous indifference to the environment is now being used as a tool to keep funding for conservation artificially low by pretending the environment has adequate resources locked in. This is a shameful development in a state where both political parties for decades supported protection of Florida's natural resources, and where two signature efforts — Preservation 2000 and its successor, Florida Forever — began under Republican governors.
There are many reasons for lawmakers to reject this budget, and the raid on Amendment 1 ranks right up there on the list. If legislators are shamelessly flouting the will of Floridians the first year after voters approved Amendment 1, imagine what they will do over the next 20 years. Seventy-five percent of the voters who turned out last year put Amendment 1 into the Florida Constitution. Imagine if those same voters come out next year to send a message to those lawmakers who ignored them.