(Tallahassee Democrat) It's a battle between Florida's green spaces and urban sprawl.
A proposed ballot amendment could designate funding from real estate transactions toward acquiring and managing land vital to preserving water and wildlife health if it makes it before voters in 2014.
Those voters, 357,027 of them thus far, have signed a petition hoping to channel more than a third of the revenue of the paperwork involved with real estate transactions to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.
The measure, sponsored by Florida's Water and Land Legacy, looks to designate revenue for the next 20 years, estimated at $648 million in 2015 and increasing to $1.268 billion in 2034, from an existing excise tax and keeps those funds from falling into the General Revenue Fund.
Campaign Chair Will Abberger said the amendment is about designating a revenue stream toward preserving water quality and wildlife habitat that is unfazed by political shifts with an environmental impact reciprocal to that of real estate.
"If land is going to be developed, and usually there's a real estate transaction that goes together with that, then why not put some of that money back into land conservation," Abberger said.
The petition still needs 326,122 signatures by Feb. 1 to make onto the ballot.
Estimated revenue, established by a financial impact committee, takes into account Florida's expected population growth of 1.3 percent and would not have any direct affect on local or state government revenues.
The committee also noted that further legislative action would be required to determine how the fund will be spent or saved.
Already 7.5 percent of document stamp taxes go into the fund, totaling $1.7 billion in revenue this year.
Of that, $563 million spilled into the state revenue fund and was distributed to several state agencies and other trust funds, for acquisition and management of environmental programs and historical properties.
If 60 percent of voters pass the amendment in November, that would no longer be the case.
No formal opposition to the amendment has been filed, but affordable housing lobbyists call the amendment, which does not mention affordable housing, a money grab by environmentalists.
Following the 2013 legislative session, just over $200 million was available from document stamp taxes for state and local government affordable housing funding, but that money was swept into the General Revenue Fund.
Affordable housing lobbyist Mark Hendrickson said while there is nothing wrong with funding environmental acquisition, but "the amendment as drafted is a huge grab of a larger share of the pie than those land purchase programs have received before."
Hendrickson called the claim that no other programs will be hurt an "overwash" and that the document stamp tax critical to providing affordable housing came from the housing industry in the first place.
He predicted an appropriation for housing in the upcoming session in March.
"We've worked really hard through the tough years to be in a position as we have more flexibility in the budget," Hendrickson said.
Funding for Florida Forever has slowed since 2009, but this year the Legislature agreed to give the Department of Environmental Protection $70 million for the land acquisition fund.
Originally, $50 million was expected to come from the sale of state-owned land deemed surplus conservation land.
Following public comment, the state reduced the number of properties for sale and is expected to fall short of its goal.
With chance for a shift in available funding, Abberger said the amendment would "guarantee that this funding will be in place for 20 years and that those priorities don't shift with whatever the political winds are in Tallahassee that particular year."
Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Adam Putnam said he was concerned about writing the state's budget into the Constitution.
"When you look at how much trauma the state budget has undergone over the last five or six years," Putnam said, "given that Florida was the epicenter of the real estate collapse, which completely dried up doc stamps and now we appear to be on the rebound, its seems like bad public policy."
Abberger said in North Florida, the amendment would put money toward areas important to fisheries, like the Apalachicola Bay, and tourism economy.
Deciding what projects get funding would be similar process used by the Acquisition and Restoration Council, which ranks Florida Forever projects and decides on necessity.
There are no specific projects listed in the ballot language, although the Everglades are named a project area, but Abberger said the idea is setting aside those places that are important along with improving public access near urban centers.
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