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Amendment 1 Will Ensure Conservation Projects Get Funded

For Florida's upcoming November elections, most of the buzz has been about Amendment 2 -- the proposal that would legalize medical marijuana via an amendment to the state constitution. But there's another proposed amendment on the ballot -- one that would dedicate funds for conservation projects.

Every time a person buys or sells property or files a deed, lien, or mortgage, the courts collect a small tax --- just 35 to 70 cents per $100 of the value. Funds collected from this documentary stamp tax have for decades, and under both Republican and Democratic governors, typically been used to fund conservation efforts.

But, says Will Abberger of the Tallahassee-based campaign Florida's Water and Land Legacy, "starting in 2009 with the recession, funding for conservation in Florida has been reduced by 95 percent" because legislators have poached this money and diverted it into the state's general fund, where it's been used on a host of projects -- but not conservation.

If Amendment 1 passes, it would require that for 20 years, one-third of the monies collected from the tax be dedicated to conservation projects. It would not raise taxes -- it would just redirect the funds that are already collected.

The text of the amendment specifies that 33 percent of the documentary stamp tax money will go to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund for

"acquisition and improvement of land, water areas, and related property interests, including conservation easements, and resources for conservation lands including wetlands, forests, and fish and wildlife habitat; wildlife management areas; lands that protect water resources and drinking water sources, including lands protecting the water quality and quantity of rivers, lakes, streams, springsheds, and lands providing recharge for groundwater and aquifer systems; lands in the Everglades Agricultural Area and the Everglades Protection Area... beaches and shores; outdoor recreation lands, including recreational trails, parks, and urban open space; rural landscapes; working farms and ranches; historic or geologic sites; together with management, restoration of natural systems, and the enhancement of public access or recreational enjoyment of conservation lands."

The amendment would give environmental projects "a stable, dedicated source of funding," and it specifies that funds can't be commingled with the general fund, Abberger explains.

Documentary stamp tax money has historically been used for conservation, including the Preservation 2000 project under then-Gov. Mel Martinez and the Florida Forever project under Jeb Bush. "It makes sense because [the funds] are tied to real estate transactions," Abberger says. As the state becomes more developed, we are simultaneously "setting aside more land and protecting our water resources."

For 2015-16, it's estimated by the Financial Impact Estimating Conference that the amendment will direct $648 million toward conservation. That figure could go as high as $1.26 billion in 20 years with projected growth.

There's no organized paid opposition to Amendment 1, but some conservatives generally oppose putting lands under government control, and some state legislators have said they prefer not to tie funds to certain projects so they have the freedom to change priorities in any given year.

Abberger says his main fear is that people might vote against the amendment because they're afraid it will raise taxes. But "a yes vote on Amendment 1 will not increase taxes -- not now, and not in the future."

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Deirdra Funcheon

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