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Sunday, October 23, 2016

OK, we get it.

You’re burned out, disillusioned and disgusted. The very thought of stepping into a voting booth causes the bile to rise in your throat.

But what if there was something on the ballot that made the ordeal worthwhile, something that made you actually feel good about Florida’s future?

There is.

It’s Amendment One, and a Yes vote will help you sleep better Tuesday night.

If the measure passes, the state will be able to resume buying and preserving important wetlands, forests, water sources, wildlife habitat and recreational space — without costing taxpayers a penny.

The money would come from 33 percent of the net revenue from existing taxes on real-estate deals. These “documentary stamps” had for a long time been portioned for conservation purposes, but in recent years legislators have played fast and loose with the funds.

Groups supporting Amendment One calculate that state spending on environmentally sensitive lands has been slashed by 95 percent since 2009. Money earmarked for key purchases has been diverted by lawmakers to cover holes elsewhere in the budget.

Amendment One was conceived in order to halt the legislative pickpocketing, and let the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund work as designed. The wish list of purchases, compiled by experts, includes pristine parcels from the Panhandle to the Keys.

Buying up irreplaceable pieces of Florida isn’t a radical practice, or a partisan one. Back in 1990, Gov. Bob Martinez, a Republican, pushed for a novel program called Preservation 2000, which used tax-free bonds to finance conservation purchases.

The debt service on the bonds was paid from the same documentary stamp taxes that would be tapped by Amendment One.

With a goal of spending $3 billion in 10 years, P2000 was the largest and most ambitious public-land acquisition effort in the country. Eventually about 900,000 acres were put under protection, a minor miracle in a state where politics is dominated by development interests.

Martinez’s Democratic successor, Lawton Chiles, also made P2000 a top priority. In 1999, as the program was about to expire, then-Gov. Jeb Bush signed the Florida Forever Act, which was supposed to continue the legacy of environmental preservation.

Bush called Florida Forever “the most significant” legislation of all 500-plus bills that were passed in Tallahassee that year. Like P2000, it was meant to provide $300 million annually, in addition to about $100 million from other public trusts.

But lawmakers in Bush’s own party didn’t wait long before dipping into the land funds for other purposes, and by 2008 it was a full-scale looting. The national recession basically put a stake in the heart of Florida Forever.

The allotted yearly $300 million from land-buying bonds plummeted to exactly zero dollars in 2009-2010, $15 million in 2010-2011, and zero again in 2011-2012. (The Legislature has approved $12.5 million for 2014-2015, with an additional $40 million possible from the future sale of state-owned properties.)

What environmentally significant tracts have been secured in the last few years were relatively small pieces that, standing alone, provide only a minimal buffer for habitats crucial to clean water and thriving wildlife.

Amendment One could raise an estimated $650 million a year or more over the next two decades, which would finance larger-scale conservation purchases. Best of all, the doc-stamp money deposited in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund would stay there, and lawmakers would be barred from using it as general revenue.

The main opposition, and it isn’t much, comes from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which says it favors public land purchases but not in a constitutional amendment. (You can never go wrong by voting for something that the Florida Chamber of Commerce doesn’t like.)

Amending the constitution wouldn’t be necessary if we had leadership in Tallahassee that could be trusted not to rip off the conservation trust funds, but we don’t.

If Amendment One passes, legislators would have to write rules about how individual land purchases are implemented. They would be smart to stick to similar guidelines applied to Florida Forever and, before that, P2000.

To let the environmental money sit idle, or somehow hinder its use, would carry a heavy political risk. The people of this state, Democrats and Republicans, cherish their beaches and rivers and Everglades.

Even if you can’t stomach anyone or anything else on Tuesday’s ballot, voting Yes on Amendment One means that your trip to the polls wasn’t a waste of a time.

Think of it as a gift to your kids and grandkids, to everybody who wants to save what’s left of Florida.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132.

Photo: “orangejack” via Flickr

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  • Sand_Cat

    Today’s GOP will support such things only if the money comes from taxing poor people.