Environmental groups say $1B in tax dollars should go to land purchases, conservation

Groups say billions have been misspent since a 2014 constitutional amendment was approved by more than 75% of voters. Concerns raised again this year.

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

Some environmental groups say Florida lawmakers are again short-changing the public when it comes to preservation and conservation purchases as $350 million is being proposed during the 2022 Legislative session. 

That may sound like a lot of money, but several conservation groups say that billions of dollars have been misspent since a 2014 constitutional amendment, approved by more than 75% of voters, that said one-third of document stamp (real estate) sales taxes should go toward buying and preserving land. 

"It seems like the Legislature should be faithful to the Constitution," said David Guest, an attorney for several environmental groups involved in a lawsuit against the state over land conservation allocations. "It's is a nice number, but it’s not what the Constitution calls for."

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This year bills are making their way through the Florida House of Representatives and the Senate that would set aside $350 million for what was once considered the top land conservation program in the nation.

The bills include SB1816 and its companion HB1377, put forth by Sen. Linda Stewart (D-Orlando) and Rep. Rick Roth (R-West  Palm Beach). Groups like 1,000 Friends of Florida support spending a minimum of $350 million a year for land conservation.

The state's land acquisition program has been called Florida Forever since the 1980s, when the tradition of setting aside $300 million a year for land purchases started.

That figure never really changed over the decades, even though the price of land has since skyrocketed. 

This year the document stamp tax revenue will generate than $1 billion, and environmental groups like the Sierra Club want all of that money spent on land purchases. 

"That is the amount that was determined in the ‘80s," said Cris Costello, with the Sierra Club. "Then Rick Scott came in and that was the death knell for conservation land acquisition funding. Many years there was very little, or even zero dollars." Scott, a Republican, was Florida's governor from January 2011 to January 2019, when he became a U.S. senator.

Members of environmental groups and others including ranchers held a press conference Friday Dec. 13, 2019 at Prairie Pine Preserve in North Fort Myers to urge legislators to fully fund Florida Forever.

Several environmental groups have filed lawsuits against the state of Florida of misspending the land conservation and preservation trust funds. 

But a Leon County circuit court judge issued an order that sides with state lawmakers, saying the challenge is moot because the money has already been spent.

Circuit Court Judge Layne Smith said in January that the case is moot because lawmakers have already allocated the money, and that the case "no longer present(s) an actual case in controversy."

Still, lawmakers will vote to allot those tax dollars again this year and for about the next decade. 

Costello said conservation-minded people should no longer refer to the program as Florida Forever because the terminology suggests only $300 million should be allotted to the program. 

"The problem with using the term Florida Forever to talk about funding in the legislative session is it's understood that Florida Forever funding is $300 million a year," Costello said. "It was supposed to be for land acquisition, but Florida Forever was dead in 2014.  But the term has continued to be used and, I think that’s for obvious reasons for some and an ignorance factor for others." 

Guest said he expects the state will spend about $500 million of the tax dollars on Everglades restoration projects, which he said falls under the spirit of the land acquisition trust. 

The remainder, however, should go to land purchases and restoration, he said.  

"The people of Florida are sovereign and the Legislators should respect that," Guest said. "What we see is the Legislators making up stories to take those words and making them meaningless. I think it’s pretty obvious it was to acquire and restore land." 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.