Gaetz: Amendment shifts too much land to state control

By By JIM TURNER, News Service of Florida
Published On: Jan 24 2014 08:18:35 PM EST

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

Florida voters will get to decide in November if funding for land conservation should be cemented into the state Constitution.

But don't expect top lawmakers to support the proposed constitutional amendment, which will appear as Amendment No. 1 on the Nov. 4 ballot after getting final approval this week from the Florida Department of State.

Asked if he would support the amendment, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said in an email Friday that "Legislating via constitutional amendments doesn't work in California and it won't work here!"

Meanwhile, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, contends the amendment will shift too much land into state control.

"The government already owns a large percentage of our state," Gaetz' spokeswoman Katie Betta said in an email. "President Gaetz does not believe in obligating the taxpayers of Florida to arbitrarily give the government control over more land."

Gaetz favors the Legislature being able to look at each transaction on its own rather than setting up "an eternal government land acquisition program," Betta said.

"The amendment is not about a specific piece of land, or a particular transaction, rather he believes the amendment is based on a core belief that more land of some kind somewhere needs to be controlled by the government and not private landholders," Betta added.

The proposed amendment, backed by a group called "Florida's Water and Land Legacy, Inc.," seeks to set aside 33 percent of the state's documentary stamp tax revenues --- fees paid when real estate is sold --- for 20 years to acquire conservation and recreation lands, manage existing lands, protect lands that are critical for water supply and restore degraded natural systems.

The proposal could generate $10 billion over its life, the group said.

Will Abberger, the campaign chairman for Florida's Water and Land Legacy Inc., said the intent of the amendment is to provide a dedicated and sustainable source of money to protect Florida's water resources.

"Having a source of clean drinking water, ensuring that the quality of our rivers, lakes and streams is good, and protecting our beaches, is something that is important enough that it shouldn't be subject to whatever political winds are blowing in Tallahassee," Abberger said.

Abberger agreed that the amendment could be helped in reaching the required 60 percent approval from voters by the high-profile attention that state lawmakers have started to give to water problems during the past year. That attention has focused on issues such as releases of polluted water out Lake Okeechobee, declining conditions of many of the state's natural springs and Florida's federal lawsuit against Georgia over a shortage of freshwater flowing into Apalachicola Bay.

"I think those crises have raised awareness of Florida voters of protecting our waters," Abberger said.

The amendment has been criticized by some legislators and business groups for mandating how lawmakers craft part of the budget.

"Imagine, if every group that wasn't satisfied with the amount of funding their special program got during the recession decided to do a constitutional amendment and mandate a certain amount of spending, how impossible it would be to balance our state budget?" said David Hart, Florida Chamber of Commerce executive vice president of governmental affairs and political operations.

The chamber is expected to take a formal position on the amendment at an upcoming board meeting, Hart added.

"What our board historically has been concerned about is that we don't follow the path of California," he continued, "where so many mandates have been put in their constitution that their legislature is incapable of balancing the budget anymore."

The idea for the amendment was spawned as funding diminished for the Florida Forever program. Florida Forever, which uses bonds backed with revenue from the documentary stamps, authorizes lawmakers to spend up to $300 million a year for preservation.

During the 2012 session, state lawmakers set aside $20 million for land conservation and established a surplus land-sale program within the state Department of Environmental Protection. The controversial program was promoted as potentially generating up to $50 million.

The final list of properties is expected to be released within a couple of weeks, but the revenue is not expected to reach the $50 million mark.

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