Florida’s Got a New Constitutional Amendment for Conservation. What Now?

There is still time to fumble the state's landmark new conservation initiative.

On Tuesday, Floridians overwhelmingly voted for Amendment 1, the so-called Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative. Winning approval from a whopping 75 percent of the electorate, the constitutional amendment will set aside one-third of all revenue from the state’s excise taxes—surcharges on goods like gasoline, cigarettes, and alcohol—into a trust fund for the purchase and upkeep of the state’s wetlands, forests, parks, beaches, farms, and urban green spaces. It’s a heartening development when held against the loss of similar measures at ballot boxes in North Dakota and Massachusetts.

All told, the amendment will generate $18 billion in dedicated funds for environmental conservation annually. “It’s a record amount of money,” says Eric Draper, state director of Audubon Florida, which rallied voters to pass the bill. “And much of it will be spent on Audubon’s priorities—wildlife habitat, Important Bird Areas, the Everglades, coastal habitats.”

Despite winning by a margin of 50 points—a clear mandate if there ever was one—a major hurdle remains in place: the state legislature. Both houses must pass the amendment before it becomes law, a process that cannot begin until the House and Senate return to Tallahassee in January. And even if the state legislature passes it swiftly, there is the matter of what are known as “trust fund sweeps:” Lawmakers in the state have a history of plundering environmental protection trusts for budget items outside their intend purposes. In the fiscal year ending in 2014 alone, the state removed $23 million from coffers financing inland habitat conservation and solid waste management, according to Florida TaxWatch, an independent watchdog group. (Amendment 1’s new $18 billion revenue stream is nine times larger than all of the state’s environmental trusts combined, which would dilute the effects of any such smash-and-grab.)

While the amendment contains a prohibition on raids for 20 years, Audubon and other conservation groups across the state are coiling for a fight, starting with the legislature’s organizational session November 18. “There is always a risk with the Florida legislature,” Draper says, “but our boots on the ground brought us this far.”

The good news is, Florida is just one of many states making more cash available for conservation projects. California, Rhode Island, and Maine also passed environmental bond programs on Election Day. All three will take up the new measures at the very top of their legislative sessions next year.