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Fla. land conservation amendment headed to ballot


 

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Jan. 17, 2014 – A group seeking to pass a constitutional amendment that would set aside funding for land conservation has surpassed the number of valid petition signatures needed to get on the November ballot.

However, the totals remain unofficial until the initiative receives certification and a ballot number from the state Division of Elections. Certification isn’t expected until after Feb. 1, the deadline for groups to submit petition signatures to get amendments on the ballot.

Will Abberger, the campaign chairman for Florida’s Water and Land Legacy Inc., which has spearheaded the amendment drive, said on Thursday his group is already moving into the next phase, as he expects to be advised shortly after Feb. 1 that the proposal will be declared Amendment 1 for the Nov. 4 ballot.

“We’re going to be reaching out to Florida voters in every way we can, to inform them of the importance of the amendment to protecting the state’s water quality,” said Abberger, who is also director of conservation finance for The Trust for Public Land. “We’re just starting that process.”

The Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment seeks to set aside 33 percent of the state’s documentary stamp tax revenues – fees already 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.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has called the proposed amendment “the wrong way for government to work.”

Florida’s Water and Land Legacy Inc. had submitted 685,971 valid signatures as of Thursday morning, 2,822 more than required to get an initiative on the ballot, according to the state Division of Elections website.

The group has also surpassed signature thresholds in 15 of the state’s 27 Congressional districts, meeting another requirement to get on the ballot.

The group, which submitted more than 1 million signatures to local supervisors of elections for verification, spent more than $2.6 million since July 2012 as it collected the signatures, according to the elections website.

Abberger expressed encouragement that state lawmakers have started to make overtures about water quality issues, but he added that the amendment would ensure the funding is available.

“To correct the problems that have caused the massive die-off of dolphins and pelicans and manatees in the Indian River Lagoon, to restore the Everglades, to ensure we have adequate fresh water coming into Apalachicola Bay, to protect our springs, is something that is going to cost money,” Abberger said.

Florida has filed a federal lawsuit against Georgia about a shortage of freshwater flowing into Apalachicola Bay. Florida argues that heavy water consumption in the metro Atlanta area has reduced downstream flows into the bay, endangering Apalachicola’s oyster industry.

Also, the House is working a comprehensive water package, while the Senate has started to advance a $220 million package aimed at improving water quality out of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. Also, some senators have been drafting an estimated $380 million package to protect Florida’s natural springs.

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.

In 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 and much-criticized program was promoted as potentially generating up to $50 million.

The final list of properties that could be offered for sale may not be set for a couple of weeks, but the revenue is not expected to reach the $50 million mark.

Source: News Service of Florida, Jim Turner