Tracking funding of Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative

FOX 35 News at 10 p.m.

- Remember in March, when hundreds of thousands of dead fish starting floating in the Indian River Lagoon? Louis Gaudet sure does. The founder of Take Back Our Water is a boat captain and took FOX 35 out on the river to show us the conditions just two months later.

"I haven't fished personally in a month now. I find it too depressing to go out honestly," he said.  When asked if he would eat the fish in the river, Gaudet replied, "No," and when asked if he would get in the water, he said, "No, not with any sort of open cut, wound, anything like that. Definitely not."

Scientists and experts blame an algae bloom for the fish kill, but Gaudet knows the problems with the Indian River Lagoon have been building for years.  "So anyone who fertilizes, pesticides, herbicides, anything they do to their yard, every time it rains, it washes those chemicals into the river."

Voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 1 (Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative) back in 2014. At the time, environmentalists claimed it was the best way to save our land and water without raising taxes.  Two years into that program, we are taking a look at how that money is being spent, and why with so much money available for water cleaning are the fish still dying?

State Senator Darren Soto, D-Orlando, says lawmakers should have known this was coming.  "It's a catastrophe, and its a sign of over development. a sign of the vetoes for the dredging that we tried to get through this year for the Indian River Lagoon.  It's also a sign that Amendment 1 funds aren't being put to the use that the people intended."

Amendment 1 forces lawmakers to spend one third of all revenue generated from "doc stamps," the taxes people pay on real estate transactions, to protect the environment. That definition is pretty broad though. Here is the actual language used in the ballot summary:

"Funds the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands including wetlands and forests; fish and wildlife habitat; lands protecting water resources and drinking water sources, including the Everglades, and the water quality of rivers, lakes, and streams; beaches and shores; outdoor recreational lands; working farms and ranches; and historic or geologic sites, by dedicating 33 percent of net revenues from the existing excise tax on documents for 20 years."

If you thought the $740 million of money this year was going to be used to strictly buy conservation lands, you will be surprised.  State Representative Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, says they went to the Florida Supreme Court to clarify.   "Now if somebody misinterprets what was in Amendment 1, I would encourage them to read the amendment or read what was in the Supreme Court opinion. I think it will become very clear to them."

So in this latest fiscal year, $162 million -- more than 20 percent of the money collected for the Fund --  will go to pay the salaries of employees at the Department of Environmental Protection, Forestry, and Fish and Wildlife. These are not new positions. They are jobs that used to be paid from General Revenue tax funds.

Sen. Soto feels like Republicans hoodwinked the public.  "Those salaries represent a misuse of from the spirit of Amendment 1."  

Only about 10 percent of Amendment One money goes to buy new land.  Rep.  Brodeur says Florida owns a higher percentage of its land already than any other state in the South at about 27 percent, and buying large amounts more is not the way to go.

"We felt as though the money was  better spent  to make sure we improved maintained and restored the lands that we currently have."

The state does spend millions on water projects, but they also do things like instruct farmers on how to use less water with Amendment 1 money.  State statute requires all state agencies to send a certain percentage of their overall budget up to Tallahassee for human resources management.  

When we told Gaudet that millions in Amendment 1 money went to Tallahassee, so employees from the Division of Forestry could be managed while his beloved river ecosystem was in trouble, he got angry.  "It's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. I mean, this state is made on its waterways... we are watching all the major waterways of our state go under, and for them to either not see it or not care, is just very frustrating."

Millions have been spent on programs to restore the water flows in springs, and some has even been spent on Indian River dredging, but not enough to prevent a fish kill. The question is are lawmakers doing what the people want?

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