Follow the Money: Florida's Land Acquisition Trust Fund

  WACISSA RIVER, FLORIDA.  PHOTO: FWC

WACISSA RIVER, FLORIDA.  PHOTO: FWC

Constitutional Amendment 1 wasn't controversial when it was on Florida's ballot last November.  Dubbed the Florida Land and Water Conservation Initiative, the amendment passed easily.  Controversy has flared up since then, as interpretations of the amendment vary.  Some say the money raised by the amendment - put into the Land Acquisition Trust Fund - can only be used to acquire conservation land.  Others (including legislative budget proposals) claim the funds can be used to cover existing expenses related to land and water management.  I wrote about this back in May, arguing that the language of the amendment probably leaves room for the Fund to cover existing operations, despite the name of the Fund itself.  I also wrote that acquiring land might not be the only mechanism to achieve sound conservation: 

Amendment supporters might consider focusing the debate on outcomes, not inputs.  Land acquisition might not by itself promote conservation, just as operational spending is not per se  unproductive.  An effective conservation framework in Florida requires lands that are thoughtfully managed to advance conservation goals.  So instead of bemoaning operational expenditures, it might behoove amendment supporters to ask for more detail instead:  Will staff salary allocations make new hires in areas where expertise is lacking or merely cover the existing bureaucracy?  What kind of "technology and information services" will be provided to the Department of Environmental Protection?  Will firefighting equipment purchased by the fund prioritize the protection of conservation areas?  Given that sea level rise presents a monumental challenge to coastal communities, will the fund be used to finance climate change adaptation measures Florida's cities are begging for from the state?

The Vero Communique picked up on my piece, and it looks like they've been doing just that by trying to track down the whereabouts and details of two major state-funded projects.  One of them was an allocation from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to the St. John's River Water Management District:

Another project we researched is one of the [] projects where $ 2,750,000 was allocated to the St. John’s River Water Management District (SJRWMD).  SJRWMD was kind enough to respond to our inquiry about this project, as follows: “The $2,750,000 referenced in Rep. Mayfield’s column is a state appropriation from the Land Acquisitions Trust Fund. The District has not yet determined how this money will be used, but will be making that decision in the near future.”

This is the first instance I've encountered where a water management district has been given an allotment from the Fund with discretion on how to spend it.  It might imply that legislators are willing to place the burden of interpretation on implementing agencies by giving them both funds and the discretion to spend those funds in compliance with the amendment's terms.  It will be interesting to see how the SJRWMD decides to spend the appropriation in light of that power.