Reported in Sun Sentinel on June 11, 2015: "A majority of Florida lawmakers bill themselves as fiscally conservative and strict followers of the Constitution, but the ongoing standoff over the purchase of new public lands paints a far different picture."
With the economy rebounding and the state budget likely to exceed $77 billion, House leaders want to use a credit card to purchase environmentally sensitive lands, while Senate leaders want to ignore the constitutional will of citizens.
Voters expected something far different last year when they overwhelmingly passed Amendment 1, which dedicates a share of real-estate sales taxes to the acquisition and restoration of conservation and recreation lands. Today, that pot totals about $740 million.
Yet meeting in special session, House leaders propose spending just $15 million on environmentally sensitive lands, down from $26.8 million during the regular session that abruptly ended last month without a state budget. And the Senate proposes spending $37 million, down from $57 million.
To make matters worse, House leaders want to borrow the money, which some might call "mortgaging our children's future." These are the same House leaders who last week refused to expand Medicaid because of concerns that federal spending is mortgaging our children's future.
Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, who chairs the House natural resources budget committee and wants to issue bonds to fund land acquisitions, says borrowing costs are so low that "money's cheap today."
Sure, Florida has always sold bonds to finance capital improvements. It's how we've paid for school and university buildings, roads and bridges, and yes, some public lands.
If Florida didn't have the money to buy environmentally sensitive lands, it would make sense to sell bonds. But Florida has plenty of dedicated money. So borrowing now, as Republican Sen. Tom Lee of Tampa says, is "somewhat hypocritical and perhaps inconsistent" given the recent debate over Medicaid.
Sen. Alan Hays, a Umatilla Republican who oversees the Senate's environmental budget committee, says "B-O-N-D is a four letter word."
And let's not forget that during his re-election campaign, Gov. Rick Scott made a big deal about lowering the state's debt, so it's hard to see how he could change course now.
The Senate isn't blameless, either. Hays resists the notion that citizens truly want to preserve wide open spaces. He suggests Florida has purchased enough public lands. His approach is, "Not just nice to have, but necessary to buy."
Fortunately, other senators favor spending at least $300 million on the state's backlog of projects. As Sen. Thad Altman of Rockledge acknowledges, "There's a strong public mandate."
Perhaps you wonder why lawmakers want to spend so little on the environment when Florida's budget will likely be bigger than ever.
It's simple. They have other priorities. They want to cut taxes, boost business incentives and bring home the bacon for local projects. While these priorities may be worthy, they are not required by the state constitution.
Truth is, lawmakers have a history of ignoring the constitution. They changed the rules on the class-size amendment. They failed to fund — then repealed — the high-speed rail amendment. And their flawed implementation of the fair districts amendment has landed them in court.
Still, when sworn into office, lawmakers take an oath to uphold the state constitution.
So today, let our legislators remember their word and do their duty.