When financial windfalls become available to the Florida Legislature, money vultures start salivating. Special interests move quickly to steer the cash to boost their agendas or wallets — fiscal responsibility be damned. Too many political operators are so anxious to get their hands on the dollars, they don’t think straight, ignoring any consequences that may come with their ill-conceived designs.
This time, it’s those who insist Florida ought to use Amendment One money to buy up huge tracts of land who are threatening the state’s financial future. These folks are full of bad advice and devoid of empirical evidence that their requests will do any good, pressing for the money to be spent in wrong-headed ways. Instead, let’s be smart and wait on any new spending plans for land, until we see unfinished, science-based programs completed as planned.
Voters passed Amendment One to the Florida Constitution last year, allocating a minimum level of state spending toward water and land conservation each year for the next 20 years. The $1 billion annual windfall sets the stage for abusive spending sprees.
Most environmental groups want to spend the money strictly to buy land, without understanding the repercussions. The fiscal impact will deliver a vicious blow to local needs, because when property is moved from private ownership to government, it depletes the tax rolls. Less taxable property means less revenue for local governments, meaning less for roads, public safety, education and infrastructure.
Florida’s budget and economy will also suffer, because the state’s obligations and costs will expand. When tax money or fees are used to buy land, government grows and ongoing expenses start to pile up. More government employees must be hired to oversee the land. Maintenance, equipment and repair expenses will balloon, overloading future budgets. Invasive species and foliage harmful to the local environment must be removed periodically. Brush fires and criminal drug trafficking must be addressed. Access roads and fences must be built. Park rangers, public restrooms, first-aid stations, elevated walkways and insurance needs may also add to the costs. Conservation land makes little or no contribution to the economy, which is weakened as private land is removed from production. Less production means less competitiveness. Basic free-market economics require the factors of production — land, capital and labor — be held privately.
Conveniently ignored is the vast amount of Florida land already owned by government at all levels. Twenty-seven percent of Florida land is already in conservation. That number grows to 33 percent when other government-owned property is included. Nearly half of Palm Beach County’s geography is already owned by state, federal or municipal governments. And let’s not forget that government-owned land departs from our Founding Fathers’ intent to protect private property.
There’s a better way. The spending should be steered to other land and water improvements, clean water and wildlife protection. With one-third of Florida’s economy invested in agriculture, purchasing conservation rights from farmers may provide one good option. Land, especially little-used farmland, could be leased, not purchased, to fulfill Amendment One’s requirements, reducing the developmental impact on land while allowing farmland to remain in private hands.
What Florida really needs to do is maintain the millions of acres of conservation lands already in existence. “Buying up land we cannot care for that falls into disrepair or becomes a breeding ground for harmful invasive species is not a legacy I am interested in leaving,” Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said.
The right way to move forward is to recognize that water conservation is central to overall conservation. The Florida Legislature should ensure that there is adequate water for all existing and future uses by growing the water supply available for use by the environment, people, and businesses. Completing existing water supply projects should come first. “Water farming” and alternative projects should be used to recharge Florida’s aquifers. More effective rainfall capture is essential, along with solutions to water-quality problems.
Let’s spend the Amendment One money wisely, not use it to grow government and increase future maintenance costs.