Florida Voters Will Decide on Land Conservation Measure

Water Woes
Alan Diaz/The Associated PressPort Mayaca Lock and Dam on Lake Okeechobee, Florida: The lake is a key issue for supporters of Amendment One.

By Zachary Fagenson and David Adams

Florida environmentalists are hoping voters will approve a ballot amendment on Tuesday to fund the purchase and conservation of land critical to protecting the state's water supply. Amendment One would reserve a portion of tax money collected on real estate transactions for the next 20 years, potentially raising $648 million to buy and maintain lands in its first year, increasing to $1.27 billion by the 20th year, according to Florida's Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

Amendment supporters hope the money can be used to buy land north of Lake Okeechobee, one of Florida's largest fresh water sources, to help filter out pollution from the Orlando metropolitan area, as well as agricultural runoff south of the lake. When Lake Okeechobee rises too high the Army Corps of Engineers has to pump the excess out to sea. The polluted lake's untreated waters cannot be diverted into nearby rivers or marshes that flow into the Everglades and are lost.

"We're wasting billions of gallons of fresh water every year," said Everglades Foundation Chief Executive Officer Eric Eikenberg.

Other land conservation concerns involve protecting iconic Florida springs, limiting population density in fragile coastal eco-systems such as the Florida Keys, as well as beach erosion, said Janet Bowman, Florida director of legislative policy for The Nature Conservancy. "In Florida the environment is the economy," she said.

But opponents ranging from lawmakers to a statewide business group, say the amendment could tie the legislature's hands should the state experience another economic downtown.

"We could very well put ourselves in a place where the legislature is forced to cut other programs or has to raise taxes during a recession," said David Hart, executive vice president for the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Backers say the amendment is needed because Governor Rick Scott, who has not taken a position on it, has failed to fund land programs even as the economy rebounds.

Florida Forever, the state's land buying program created by former Governor Jeb Bush in 2000 and funded at first by $300 million in bonds, was not funded in 2011 and received only $15 million to $20 million in the last fiscal year, according to Bowman.

"If the governor and legislature aren't going to fund it, this is the bill that will," said Paula Dockery, a former Republican state senator who authored Florida Forever.