Florida Senate leaders rejected a budget amendment Wednesday that would have restored $222.5 million to the Florida Forever land-buying program that has been left threadbare since the Great Recession, arguing that the amendment was "out of order" because it would have left the Senate's proposed budget out of balance.
The amendment, by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, would have restored the funding to the state's once-vaunted land acquisition program, heralded by environmentalists as visionary approach to shielding the state's fragile ecosystems and waterways from pollution and other development encroachment.
The state program was wiped dry by lawmakers during the tight years of the recession and so environmentalists asked voters to approve Amendment 1 in 2014, creating a dedicated funding stream lawmakers would be required to use for land acquisition and water preservation.
Despite that, legislators have steadfastly refused to restore the land buying program -- which was first begun as Preservation 2000 by Republican Gov. Bob Martinez in 1991 -- to its traditional level of $300 million a year. The 2015-16 budget includes only $17.5 million for the acquisition of vital conservation lands through Florida Forever. The Senate proposed budget raises that to $22.5 million.
Altman's amendment would authorize $222.5 million in bond proceeds from recurring money used to fund the Land Acquisition Trust fund, to be used for land acquisition through the Florida Forever program. He argued that the revenue source -- the documentary stamp tax on real estate transactions -- is "a robust fund and is expected to grow" so earmarking the money to pay bonds for land buying "will not affect the stability of our state."
"It's the best stewardship of our tax dollars,'' he said. "These lands we want to purchase; we will lose them. They're escalating [in value] faster than our ability to purchase them."
But Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the Senate majority leader, called a "point of order" saying the amendment was not appropriate because it upset the budget balance. Senate Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Orlando, agreed and the amendment was withdrawn.
Altman was angered by the ruling and said it exposed a serious flaw in the Legislature's budget process.
"All I was asking is to restore the right of this body in public to question an allocation,'' he told reporters after the Senate adjourned. "Horrific, horrific ruling that sets a horrific precedent."
The decision to limit the amount of money allocated to land acquisition to $22 million was done during the budget allocation process with no interaction from legislators, he said.
"It sheds light on a huge, huge issue,'' he said. "It's the fact that allocations are done completely out of the sunshine, privately done and nobody even knows who does them in this back room and the public has no say...I think we should call for allocations to be done in public, they should be voted on. There should be debate. People should have a right to give input."
He said that when legislative leaders determine how much of the budget each budget area will get, they limit how much each area will have to spend. That is "bad enough for the appropriations process,'' he said, but by rejecting his amendment "they're saying we're telling you how you allocate your resources. and by rejecting his amendment, "they're saying we're telling you how you allocate your resources."
Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, disagreed that the ruling was wrong.
"When you have the support of your colleagues, there's a lot of flexibility,'' he said, adding that Altman didn't say where he was taking the money for the land-buying bonds. "If you can find the money somewhere else and shift priorities over and there's a higher priority for land acquisition than there is for something, springs or something else like that, then all of those amendments are available to us. You just can't break the bank."
As for the claim that the budget allocation process is done behind closed doors, Lee pushed back.
"Some [budget] chairs have a discussion about how everybody feels about life in the committee,'' he said. "Others have private conversations with members of the committee...but ultimately the subcommittee's chairman's responsibility is to roll out a budget tha reflects the composite of his committee. We don't tell them how to do that."
Audubon Florida issued an email earlier in the day urging its members to tell senators to support the Altman amendment. "At a time when Florida's population is exploding it is essential that our state protect its most important natural lands and waters by acquiring these lands outright or by purchasing conservation easements which prevent future development,'' Audubon Florida wrote.