MAXWELL:  Hands off the Preservation 2000 funds

5/15/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Mercifully, our GOP-led Legislature has left Tallahassee. Although I realize that name-calling is a terrible logical fallacy, I must say that Florida’s state senators and representatives act like a bunch of uncaring hacks.

I followed many of the issues this crowd dealt with. The one I followed most closely was the Preservation 2000 fund.

Yes, I am one of those sandal-clad, tree-hugging, bird-watching, gopher-tortoise-loving weirdos who knows that we are losing this paradise we call Florida. We understand that our tropical peninsula is fragile, that with population growth and unprincipled development, we are in a race against time to save much of what remains of our pristine regions.

Yes, I am one of those natives who has visited (hiking, camping, fishing) all of our major state parks. Twelve years ago, three friends and I even spent seven days kayaking from Flamingo in the Everglades National Park to Everglades City. (Halfway through the ordeal, we questioned our sanity after vampire mosquitoes sucked our blood at will.)

As a nature lover, I was encouraged 10 years ago when the state established Preservation 2000, a $3-billion program that sold bonds to buy environmentally sensitive properties. Thus far, the program has kept developers away from 1-million acres of wild landscapes, including lowly bogs and scrub stands.

As I read the legislation 10 years ago, the fund was to be used exclusively for preserving the environment. A column I wrote at the time persuaded many Florida residents, natives and transplants alike, to invest in the program. I know because some called or wrote letters thanking me for introducing them to a good cause they could support.

Now, some of these bondholders are calling and writing because they are outraged that for two consecutive years, incompetent, cowardly legislators have raided the fund. Last year, lawmakers lifted $75-million from the fund, this year $100-million. One of my neighbors on Coquina Key invested $10,000. Furious, he and his wife came to my house Monday night to tell me they “have been duped.”

I agree. All Floridians who thought they were investing strictly in the environment have been duped, and the raids are tying the hands of state-related agencies that buy and protect sensitive lands. The St. Petersburg Times reported that the Southwest Florida Management District, for example, lost $20-million in land-purchasing money it could have used to protect areas critical to the region’s water resources.

How can the Legislature and the governor act so irresponsibly and threaten precious water resources? Supporters of Preservation 2000 see a combination of cynicism, indifference, arrogance, desperation, incompetence.

Frank Jackalone, Florida director of the Sierra Club: “Watching Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature manage the state of Florida’s finances this year has been like viewing the fumbling antics of the Keystone Kops. After making massive revenue cuts, Bush and legislators have done nothing but scramble to find the path of least resistance to make up for the budget shortfall _ whether it be education one day, the state sales tax holiday the next, or, today, the Preservation 2000 land program as the latest target.”

Jackalone believes many lawmakers who raided the fund will pay price at election time: “The Legislature and the governor are arrogantly misreading the pulse of the electorate they if they think that cutting land preservation funds won’t produce a “throw the bums out’ voter backlash. Have they forgotten that more than 70 percent of the ballots cast in 2000 supported amending Florida’s Constitution as the only way to guarantee that the state would raise and spend the dollars needed to acquire those unprotected natural treasures that lay within reach of the state’s rapidly advancing bulldozers and construction cranes?”

Other activists, representing Audubon of Florida and the Nature Conservancy, believe Bush and lawmakers are playing a shell game with Preservation 2000 funds. Legislators say they will use the fund’s debt reserve dollars to pay off debt service on the bonds. This move, they claim, would loosen up money for, among things, education and health care. Activists do not believe Tallahassee, arguing that lawmakers are using sleight of hand to cover for their beloved $262-million corporate tax cut.

Preservation 2000 investors have every reason to believe our lawmakers are a pack of self-serving liars. They promised last year to restore the $75-million they grabbed from the fund. They did not. They promised last year they would not raid the fund this year.

They lied.