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Florida Environmentalists Launch $10B Conservation Campaign

BRADENTON, Fla. — Major environmental groups in Florida this week unveiled a campaign to ask the state’s voters to approve a new bond program that could fund as much as $10 billion in conservation programs.

Florida has spent billions of dollars over two decades for some of the largest environmental acquisition and restoration programs in the country.

But a dearth of state funding since 2009 prompted environmentalists to launch the Florida Water and Land Legacy Campaign — a constitutional petition drive aimed at providing a dedicated source of revenue to purchase land for conservation and recreational purposes, organizers said.

The groups need 676,811 registered voters to put their proposed constitutional amendment on the 2014 ballot.

If voters approve the amendment, it would take effect July 1, 2015, and would dedicate one-third of the net revenues from the state’s documentary stamp tax on real estate to land and water programs over 20 years.

“Our feeling is that voters will support land conservation programs,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida.

As Florida regains population growth and construction patterns stunted by the economic downturn, Draper believes voters will be interested in protecting the quality of life that is underpinned by Florida’s natural resources, he said. Organizers expect documentary tax collections to begin slowly growing in 2015 as the real estate market improves.

“By that time, we expect documentary stamp taxes collections will increase considerably, and we could leverage that money to sell bonds,” he said.

Currently, Florida’s constitution — as amended by voters in the past — allows state funds to be spent on environmental programs.

Previous constitutional amendments did not dedicate specific funds or require that the Legislature appropriate funds annually for conservation programs. As a result of the amendments though, lawmakers over the last 20 years implemented a number of major environmental bond programs.

The current programs for which bonds are outstanding are Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever, as well as a separate program to fund Everglades restoration.

About $5.25 billion in bonds have been sold in addition to spending $1 billion in cash over the years to support those programs, according to Ben Watkins, director of the state’s Division of Bond Finance.

“It’s been an extraordinary program and accomplished purchasing over a million acres of real estate in Florida,” he said.

Currently, about $2 billion of bonds are outstanding. The bonds are secured by 63.3% of current documentary stamp tax collections. The last time new-money bonds were sold for environmental programs was early 2010, and issuances since then have been refundings.

Revenue collections from the stamp tax have declined to just over $1 billion in recent years from a pre-recessionary high of $4 billion in 2006, according to Watkins.

Though Florida has purchased many environmentally sensitive lands, Draper said Everglades restoration is overdue and many projects remain unfunded on the Florida Forever land acquisition list. “There’s not a lack of projects,” he said.

In 2009, as state revenues declined from the economic downturn, lawmakers suspended additional funding for environmental programs.

“The programs were not suspended because we didn’t want to continue conserving land, but because of the dramatic decline in revenue caused by the financial crisis and the Great Recession,” Watkins said. “The Legislature had to prioritize.”

Watkins said there is some “marginal capacity” in the current program now, though not enough for the size of the program environmentalists envision because of debt-service requirements on the outstanding bonds. In fiscal 2011, the state paid $434.03 million in combined debt service for the three existing programs.

When the Preservation 2000 bonds are paid off next year, the commitment of documentary stamp taxes for debt service will drop by about $256 million a year, according to Watkins.

“There is slow growth projected in the documentary stamp taxes,” he said, cautioning that it is a volatile revenue stream as seen the past few years.

Another metric to consider is the fact that the state remains above its self-imposed 7% cap on debt-service payments as a ratio of available state revenues, Watkins said. At the end of 2011, that ratio was 7.64% because of declining revenues and not due to increased borrowing.

Florida has significantly decreased the annual issuance of new bonds the past few years, and focused on paying down debt in part because many elected officials are debt-averse, including Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican.

Draper said the environmental campaign did not arise because of the political reluctance to sell bonds, but because previous governors and lawmakers felt environmental spending was a priority along with other needs of the state.

“The state’s gone through a recession, but at the same time taxes are being cut,” he said. “Our feeling is that voters will support land conservation programs.”

Draper also said he believed that the Legislature could have continued to fund the Everglades restoration and Florida Forever programs at modest levels between $100 million or $200 million a year. “Nothing was cut as dramatically as the environmental programs,” he said.

Documentary stamp tax collections have just begun to see improvement, and increased 7.2% to $1.15 billion last year, though collections are still far below the $4 billion seen six years ago during the height of the real estate bubble.

As state revenues begin to rise, Draper said the environmental coalition believes that lawmakers “will not find it in their hearts to help with land acquisition needs,” and voters will.

“I think we’ve been successful in Florida and had a good track record of local and statewide approval of land conservation measures, and as the state starts growing when we get to the ballot there will be plenty of signs of growth,” he said. “We think people will say, 'Hey, Florida is a special place and we want to keep its quality of life.’ ”

In addition to Audubon Florida, other groups backing the constitutional initiative include the Trust for Public Land, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, 1000 Friends of Florida, Defenders of Wildlife, the Conservation Trust for Florida, the Florida Conservation Alliance, the Conservation Fund, the Alachua Conservation Trust, and others.

The Florida Water and Land Legacy Campaign’s website is www.floridawaterlandlegacy.org.

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