Published in Orlando Sentinel, July 6, 2015: The biggest scam on voters since the Florida Lottery was approved by the Legislature last month, and the author of much of it was none other than state Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla.
Folks who aren't new to the state remember that the lottery was approved by a 2-1 vote in 1986. Residents supported it because it was sold as an "enhancement" for education. The proceeds were supposed to be spent on top of what the state already was spending on schools. Oh, if that had only happened.
Instead, lottery money simply replaced the usual funding for education, and legislators spent the "saved" bucks on anything and everything else.
The same bait-and-switch tactic just got pulled again. Some 75 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 1, which dedicated more than $700 million for conservation and preservation. The money is to come from 33 percent of the documentary-stamp tax, which is levied on property being sold.
The amendment declared the cash would be spent to "acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands including wetlands and forests; fish and wildlife habitat; lands protecting water resources and drinking water sources, including the Everglades, and the water quality of rivers, lakes and streams; beaches and shores; outdoor recreational lands; working farms and ranches; and historic or geologic sites," for 20 years.
Those behind Amendment 1 now say that an agreement between the Florida Senate and House earmarks only $17.4 million of the doc-stamp money for buying parks and wildlife habitat under the state program called Florida Forever.
Ugh. The amendment appeared on the ballot because spending on conservation, environment and water resources, important items to voters, had been routinely ignored by elected officials such as Hays, who believes the state owns too much land now.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that in what should be a record year in environmental spending actually will drop from 18 percent of the state budget last year to 13 percent this year.
You got took, Florida.
The money that was supposed to be spent on the environment is now going to the usual infrastructure expenses and paying salaries in agencies that already exist, such as state parks.
"Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Amendment 1 funding has kind of vanished into the bigger budget," Florida Audubon Society director Eric Draper told the Times. "It's very hard to track down now."
Actually, it's clear where at least some of it went. About $13.65 million is going to help Alico, an agricultural giant, keep a state contract for something called water farming.
The cash will pay private farmers to hold water back from Lake Okeechobee in an effort to reduce pollution. Never mind that this can be done on land already owned by the public with a fraction of the cost. Critics have labeled this turkey "corporate welfare."
Hays wrote a whiny commentary rebutting the Times' aggressive coverage of the misspending of the money and Hays' role in it.
His view boils down to this: Hays believes the voters don't thoroughly understand how environmental dollars are spent, so he's going to save them from doing something really stupid by diverting cash away from their very specific orders on how to spend it. Hays argues that because the doc-stamp tax didn't generate "new money," then it is perfectly OK to spend it on current operations rather than buying land. He said the spending "exceeds" the requirements of the amendment.
Except that's not what the voters said to do. They said stop spending on other stuff and redirect the cash to the environment and the state's fragile water resources. Hays' unfortunate commentary displays open contempt for voters.
Last week, Earthjustice, a group known for litigating environmental concerns, filed a lawsuit in Tallahassee on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, claiming that the Legislature ignored the will of the voters. How this plays out could make a huge difference in the state's environmental future.
But even voters who aren't crazy about spending tax dollars on the environment should remember that legislators, with Hays leading the charge, snubbed their noses at the public. How disrespectful.