Don't quit on Florida's land preservation effort
April 16, 2009
Florida Forever makes the state a better place to live, reduces the burden on taxpayers and boosts the tourism industry. Beyond that, it has become a national model for how such a government program should operate.
To sacrifice this two-decade-old land preservation program during the budget crisis would be shamefully shortsighted - and forever taint the reputation of this Legislature.
Yet current budgets in the House and Senate contain no dollars for Florida Forever. That is an outrage - one that voters would not likely forget.
The public understands the program's value. A statewide survey released last week showed 81 percent of respondents had a "favorable impression" of land preservation in the state.
And 67 percent want Florida Forever funded this year. The support crosses party lines and political ideologies. The survey was conducted for the Nature Conservancy, Trust for Public Land and the Florida Forever Coalition.
Support on the grassroots level is strong. Some 73 percent of those contacted in the Tampa Bay area want the program funded.
Such results should not surprise. Florida voters have consistently demonstrated they want their tax dollars spent on conservation.
In the November general election, for example, with the economy spiraling downward, an amazing 79 percent of Hillsborough County voters backed a referendum to continue using a small property tax to fund the county's land-buying program.
Such local programs, which often share acquisition costs with the state, maximize Florida Forever's purchasing power.
With the state facing a $3 billion budget deficit, it's understandable that lawmakers would reduce the funding of even the most popular programs. But there's a tremendous difference between scaling back an effort and putting it on the shelf, where it can be left indefinitely.
In previous years lawmakers allocated $30 million a year in seed money to provide leverage for the bonds that make the program work. Florida Forever backers point out legislators this year need only allocate $12.4 million in documentary stamp revenue, the program's financing mechanism, to keep the program going. That is a modest request.
In any event, lawmakers should allocate something. If they don't, they will deprive the state of a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on lower land values.
And as former Gov. Bob Martinez, who started the program, points out, much of the money the state spends goes back into the economy, as landowners reinvest it.
Florida Forever has preserved more than 2 million acres since its inception in the late 1980s, protecting springs, rivers, beaches, and other environmentally sensitive tracts, including critical groundwater recharge areas.
It enables residents and tourists alike to experience natural Florida - and ecotourism is the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry.
Moreover, every bit of land that is preserved eases the burden on taxpayers - who are spared the costs of paying for the infrastructure needed to serve sprawling subdivisions.
Florida Forever is a state jewel. Lawmakers should not throw it away - even in a financial crisis.
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