Florida voters will decide whether environmental preservation becomes part of the state Constitution. Amendment 1 is a citizens’ initiative born from nearly a million petition signatures.
The amendment would set aside a percentage of revenue from real estate fees to pay for water and land conservation for the next 20 years.
While critics say anything that impacts the state budget should not be in the Constitution, campaign manager Will Abberger says citizens took action because the Legislature hasn’t done enough to fund conservation efforts.
“Amendment One draws on an existing revenue source that’s been the historic source of funding for water and land conservation for decades," Abberger says. "The Legislature diverted those funds, and what Amendment One will do is restore them and give them constitutional protection.”
The amendment will be funded by revenue from documentary stamp taxes, known as doc stamps. The doc stamp fee is paid every time real estate is sold in Florida. Revenue from doc stamps has been used to protect water bodies, drinking water sources, and wildlife habitats for more than two decades. The revenue funds a lot of other programs and services, too. But Abberger says the amendment will have little or no impact on those.
“Amendment One sets aside 33 percent of the existing fee, so this is not a new tax. That’s the first thing that’s very important to remember. There were times when more than 50 percent of the doc stamp was used for water and land conservation,” Abberger says.
Government watchdog Florida Taxwatch hasn’t taken a position on the amendment. But Kurt Wenner, Vice President of Tax Research, says putting this kind of spending into the Constitution instead of state law limits flexibility when the Legislature creates the state budget.
“There may be a general revenue shortfall, but 33 percent of doc stamps are still going to have to go to that area," Wenner says. "The Legislature does a lot of things to balance a budget. There’s a lot of different ways they can move money around and decide how much spending to go in certain areas, so this kind of just ties their hands a little bit more.”
If the proposal were in state statutes instead of the Constitution, lawmakers would have a lot more flexibility. Wenner says in five of the last 11 years, the Legislature put more money into environmental causes than is required by the amendment because funding also comes from places like general revenue.
So, while the amendment requires a minimum percentage of spending on water and land efforts, lawmakers could decide that’s all those programs will get.
“It could be that, OK, 33 percent is going to go for these programs, so that’s how much money we’re going to spend," Wenner says. "It’s not assured in our view and also in the Legislature’s economic development office that did the financial impact statement on this, that this will increase spending for any of these programs.”
Lobbyist Karen Woodall has no issue with the goal of Amendment One, but she also disagrees with putting budgetary items into the Constitution.
“When you’re locked in the Constitution, you can’t change them except with a 60-percent vote after either the Legislature or the public puts things on the ballot,” Woodall says.
Woodall has other concerns about the amendment, as someone who lobbies the Legislature on issues related to health and human services. Doc stamp fees fund everything from transportation to affordable housing programs to oyster management and restoration.
“So when you take a percentage out of the monies raised from the doc stamp, you’re going to squeeze other things that are funded using the same dollars,” Woodall says.
The amendment has supporters and opponents across political parties.
Florida’s Republican Senate president and House speaker oppose it, while former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, also a Republican, is speaking in favor of it.
“We really do need in the state to have a dedicated tax fund for that purpose," McCollum says. "You know, sometimes legislatures get other priorities in their mind at the moment, and they don’t provide a consistent source of funding for some of the critical things that really are needed now, not 10 years from now or 15 years from now when it may be too late.”
Will Abberger with the Yes on 1 campaign believes the amendment will increase funding for water and land conservation. He says people shouldn't worry about it being placed in the Constitution.
“Amendment One is really less than 1 percent of the $77 billion state budget. The first year it’s projected to generate about $648 million," Abberger says. "Surely we can set aside at least 1 percent of our state budget.”
Sixty percent of voters will have to approve Amendment One in order for it to pass.
News Service of Florida contributed to this report.