Tuesday, December 17, 2019

$470.12 million or bust: Fully Fund Florida Forever

What does “fully fund” Florida Forever 
in 2020 mean to Sierra Club?

In the coming 2020-21 fiscal year, the Land Acquisition Trust Fund (LATF) is projected to receive $943.52 million from the documentary stamp tax. 

Subtract the $158.03 million that will go to debt service ($134.92 million for Florida Forever bonds and $23.11 million for Everglades Restoration bonds) and you get $785.49 million for the remaining purposes of the LATF.[1] 

That $785.49 million should by rights be distributed equitably to North and South Florida but current statute devotes much more to South Florida than to the rest of the state. 

Of that $785.49 million, 33.15% is already devoted to the Everglades ($196.37 million for Everglades projects and $64 million for Everglades Trust Fund) while only 6.37% is devoted to springs ($50 million) and 0.64% ($5 million) is devoted to Lake Apopka.

What remains after those existing statutory obligations is $470.12 million.  It is referred to as “uncommitted cash based on statutory provisions” and is 59.85% of the LATF (after debt service).

In order to “fully fund” Florida Forever in 2020-2021, that $470.12 million must be:

(1)   Allocated to Florida Forever pursuant to the purposes and requirements of the 2014 Land Acquisition Trust Fund constitutional amendment; and
(2)   Allocated to Florida Forever in such a way as to eliminate the current inequitable distribution of LATF funds and bring statutory balance between environmental investment in the North and South of the state.

The needs of the valuable ecosystems of North Florida, our springs, rivers, lakes, wetlands, prairies, and forests habitat have all been severely shortchanged and must be addressed. The Land Acquisition Trust Fund constitutional amendment was adopted in 2014 by 75% of Florida’s voters from all around the state[2] and the legislature owes all Floridians recognition and equity. 

That which is currently being funded by the “uncommitted cash based on statutory provisions” should be funded henceforth from the revenue streams used prior to the implementation of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund constitutional amendment in 2015. To the extent that those prior revenue streams were redirected to other purposes, and in order to prevent the unjust termination of state employees or abrogation of contracts, the state can make up for any shortfalls by foregoing tax cuts and, when necessary, enhancing revenues in order to preserve the state’s natural resources for posterity.  In the current fiscal year, there were nearly $400 million in tax cuts of which roughly $272.3 million were made in school district property taxes and $121.1 million were made to state revenue.[3]  Going forward, the state must include revenue in its budgeting exercises; it is irresponsible to focus solely on cuts. 

NOTE:  $300 million per year for Florida Forever was an artifact of the statute adopted in 1999 (reenacted in 2008) and is no longer adequate:
1.      The cost of land has increased and the value of the dollar has decreased.

2.      Land acquisition has been essentially halted since 2010 and the state needs to catch up before it is too late.

3.      Fully funding the state’s conservation land needs requires at least $9 billion estimated to acquire the properties on the Acquisition and Restoration Council (ARC) list.

“Fully Fund Florida Forever” means $470.12 million  

When the environmental community has called for “full funding of Florida Forever” in past years, we have either differed in the amounts asked for or not specified a dollar amount at all. 

We think it is time to:

  • Identify a dollar amount that is based on the full use of the doc stamp funding received by the Land Acquisition Trust Fund (LATF);
  • Use that dollar amount to replace the paltry and unacceptable $100 million promised (but rarely delivered) by elected officials; and
  • Use that dollar amount to replace the $300 million target with one appropriate to the present situation. 
$470.12 million is that number.  When we say “Florida Forever,” we are not referring to
259.105 F.S. (the Florida Forever formula used in 1999 but not used since).  Rather, we use “Florida Forever” as a catch-all term for real environmental spending (i.e. not IT support, insurance, salaries, office equipment, etc.). And we use the $470.12 million to catch all of the LATF funding voters demanded the environment receive.

Therefore, the umbrella of “Florida Forever” includes money for springs and rivers protection, ranchland preservation, etc. that could be drawn from the $470.12 million and allocated within 375.041 F.S. (LATF), even if the uses were not traditionally part of the Florida Forever program formula.

We are using "Florida Forever" as the label for the main (only) real environmental funding program in the state. 

We think using Florida Forever as a label makes sense because of how the public perceives it and why the public voted for Amendment 1 in 2014.  Few Floridians know what 259.105 F.S. is, but many probably know (sort of) what Florida Forever is supposed to be and do.

375.041 F.S. (LATF) is now effectively Florida Forever whether we like it or not, because it is the only funding source for large environmental purposes, whatever the court determines those to be.  Our approach  to “full funding of Florida Forever” comes from that reality.

Regarding allocations out of that $470.12 million, we don’t believe anyone in the environmental protection community will argue against requiring LATF funds to be spent “consistent with the language in the Constitution.”  But we understand that different organizations within that community have different ideas of what “consistent” means.  That is OK.  Eventually the court will decide and until then we can agree to disagree on allocations.  When the decision is final, we can work together to make sure the protection of Florida’s environment is a top priority in the legislature.

What we want is a better chance to get more money, not less, spent on the environment, and the best way to make ourselves heard is to agree on and rally around what “fully fund Florida Forever” means within the context of the LATF world we live in now.

NOTE:  The funds in the LATF fluctuate in response to the level of real estate activity in the state.  There is a logical nexus; the more development, the greater the funds, and the greater need to buy and protect conservation lands.  For 2020-2021, the “uncommitted cash” is $470.12 million.  In subsequent years that dollar amount will change.