A coalition of environmental groups all over the state are banding together to get a measure on the November 2014 ballot that would make sure land conservation in Florida gets adequate funding.
Since 2009, the legislature has been slashing money for a state program called Florida Forever. The program helps the state buy environmentally sensitive land--it also manages and restores the land it already owns.
Aliki Moncrief is the director of Florida’s Water and Land Legacy, which is the campaign created to get language in the state’s constitution that makes sure Florida Forever is adequately funded from here on out.
She says the amendment will be a big help for the state’s conservation lands.
“Unfortunately for the past several years, there has not been enough funding for things like Florida Forever,” Moncrief explains. “So, you know, in 2009 it was zero. Zero dollars were allocated through the legislature to Florida Forever.”
Moncrief says in the past, state lawmakers set aside $300 million in the state budget for the program. However, the economy took a turn around 2009 and a cash-strapped Florida Legislature decided to slash water and land conservation projects by about 97 percent since then.
Eric Draper, the president of Florida’s Audubon Society, takes part in lobbying state lawmakers every year to give conservation programs more money. He says efforts have not been fruitful.
“We reached a point where the Legislature stopped listening,” Draper says. “And we reached a point where the results of our lobbying activities were less and less funds in the appropriations bill. And part of that was due to the economic down-crease. But even right now we take a head count of legislators and we don’t see the commitment to environmental spending that you would expect.”
That’s why environmental groups are sort of bypassing the legislature.
A constitutional amendment allows them to collect the signatures of Florida residents-- instead of fighting for a bill in the Legislature or lobbying lawmakers every year for the money.
If passed, the amendment would set aside one third of the money collected by the state from real estate transactions and put it into a trust fund that would go to programs like Florida Forever.
Dan Peterson, the executive director of the Coalition for Property Rights in Orlando, thinks the state government already owns too much of Florida. He says this amendment is just a bad idea.
“Does government need to own and put much more land like that on a regular basis in conservation?” he asks. “Wouldn’t private owners do an equally good job of that, especially in light of the many, many regulations and restrictions that are already out there?”
Peterson says if the measure makes it on to a ballot, these kinds of questions will definitely come up.
“You know there will obviously be an effort if that petition goes forward to educate people and to have them consider if it is really necessary,” Peterson says.
But just getting the measure on to the ballot is a difficult process, in itself.
Moncrief of Florida’s Water and Land Legacy says the group started organizing this past fall.
“We’ve been gathering petitions and we have until November 30 of 2013 to gather just over 683,000 valid signatures,” she says.
Ten percent of those signatures need to be collected long before that date so that the Supreme Court can approve the amendment’s language, but Draper is hopeful.
“We just can’t depend on the Legislature but we can depend on the voters,” Draper says.
Moncrief says that the numbers are in their favor.
“We have done the research to show that 75 percent of Floridians that come out to the polls, if this is on the ballot they will support it,” she says.
Moncrief says more than 200 local and statewide environmental groups—as well as a handful of progressive political groups are helping out. In the past few months, she says Florida’s Land and Water Legacy campaign has recruited 3,000 volunteers and about 600 are actively collecting signatures at farmers markets and other public events.
The Florida Division of Elections has validated about 36,000 signatures the campaign has collected so far.