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Amendment One Spending Legality In Question

Michael Seeley via Flikr

With the state budget to be passed this evening, conservationists are upset over the way Amendment One funds were allocated. The state’s main land-buying program for conservation, Florida-Forever, was left with significantly fewer dollars than other conservation commissions – who are using their allotted funds for personnel.

Lawmakers set aside $17 million dollars in the state budget, out of a pool of over $740 million, for Florida Forever to acquire private land to conserve. Yet, supporters of Amendment One are disappointed because nearly $230 million dollars was set aside for salaries of staff in already existing agencies.  The Executive Director of the state conservation group, Audubon Florida is Eric Draper. He said the legislature is suspected of not allocating funds correctly under the new constitutional provision.

“Just look at the ratio of money that were spent on salaries – maybe $230 million dollars versus the amount of money spent on lands, um, $17 million dollars,” Draper said. “You really need $230 million dollars’ worth of staff to spend $17 million dollars to buy land? I don’t think so.”

Draper is not alone. The Director of the Finance Program for the Trust of Public Lands, Will Abberger, also thinks the money was not properly spent. He said the need for Florida Forever to acquire lands is significant.

“That’s why land acquisition is so important,” Abberger said. “The key to protecting the Indian River lagoon is protecting those areas along the lagoon, so that polluted water doesn’t flow into it. The key to restoring the Everglades is to acquire land to serve as a reservoir so that polluted water from Lake Okeechobee can be naturally filtered out and doesn’t go into those estuaries.”

Abberger added that the lands in the backlog of Florida Forever’s acquisition list, totaling around $10 billion dollars, can’t wait forever to be conserved.

“These properties that have gone through a very careful evaluation process and are now on the Florida Forever priority list, and have been languishing there since 2009, are under threat of development,” he said.   

Draper and Audubon Florida are convinced the legislature misused Amendment One money in a big $100 million dollars way – and the healthcare battle in special session is partly to blame.

“One thing was distressing during the legislative session is the decisions about how to spend Amendment One money were put off to the very end of the legislative session only after they finished the healthcare debate,” Draper said. “And one thing we were told is that as much as $100 million dollars of general revenue that would’ve supported environmental spending was moved over to the healthcare side of the ledger.”

Some members of the legislature, like Republican Senator Alan Hays believe the money was well spent.

“I truly believe that the citizens of the state that voted on Amendment One would not have wanted the management of our state’s resources - the Everglades restorations, and springs protection, and the protection of our water resources to be sacrificed just to purchase more land,” Hays said.

Hays headed the Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government. He also said the notion of a majority of Floridians supporting Amendment One, is, not in fact true.

“The 4-point-something million that voted for this amendment is about 20 percent, one-fifth of the population of Florida,” he said. “So don’t let anybody tell you that 75 percent of the people of this state voted to buy land. That’s just not true.”

Amendment One conservation funding is set to allocate more than $22 billion dollars to conservation efforts over the next 20 years.