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OUR VIEW: The ‘state’ controls 60% of Florida land; don’t buy any more

By: 
Apr. 2, 2015

It’s never enough. And they will not be happy until we are all walking around in caveman loincloths and every developer has been run out of the state.

These are the Amendment 1 fanatics and their news media brethren.

They have complained the past two weeks — and are still complaining — that Florida’s lawmakers essentially are flipping off Florida voters.

You recall no doubt that 75% of Floridians who voted in November said “yes” to Amendment 1. As the new law of the land, the amendment requires 33% of the state’s documentary-stamp tax collections be appropriated “to finance or refinance: the acquisition and improvement of land, water areas and related property interests.”

In the current legislative budget talks in Tallahassee, those doc stamps are expected to generate about $742 million for the environment — $442 million more than was authorized to be spent each year under the Florida Forever land-buying program.

But instead of earmarking that money for a land-buying spree to acquire a long list of “environmentally sensitive” land, House and Senate budget proposals so far are designating more money for land management than for land acquisition. As they point out, the amendment did say “acquisition and improvement” of land (emphasis added).

To no surprise, Florida’s daily newspapers were blaring with headlines, news stories, editorials and columnists, all excoriating lawmakers, accusing them of ignoring voters’ wishes and demands. And dutifully, every one of these reports quotes the Amendment 1 sponsors and leading environmental spokesmen, who chime in with their protests.

It must be springtime, right? Isn’t that what we hear at this time every year from Tallahassee — those awful Republicans and developers are choking and raping and pillaging Florida’s environment? Every year, you get the impression from the Tallahassee news reports that lawmakers are on track to remove all barriers to development and turn Florida into a free-for-all to develop all 53,000 square miles of the state into strip malls, high-rise condos, stucco homes and trailer parks.

But if truth be told, Floridians should be more alarmed by the opposite — by what the environmentalists have achieved over the past 30 years and how they are intent on not stopping, on using “the state” (i.e. taxpayers’ money, your money) to buy, own and forever forbid development on as much land as possible.

Using that warm-and-fuzzy pretext of “preserving Florida for future generations,” along with the alarmist harangue of “climate change” (sorry, Governor), the state’s activist environmentalists have persuaded taxpayers and federal, state and local lawmakers to use $7 billion of taxpayer money over the past 30 years to buy up 28% of the state’s land mass and take 30% of the state’s land off the table for future development.

Let’s be more explicit: Nearly 60% of Florida’s land mass is under government control.

From an emotional perspective, a large majority of Floridians probably would applaud that. It feels good to think we’re preserving Florida’s unique natural assets.

But what Floridians failed to get before they voted for Amendment 1 was an honest picture of what already existed.

The supporters of Amendment 1 harped on how lawmakers during the recession did not appropriate or spend up to the $300 million a year they were authorized to under the Florida Forever land-acquisition program. Amendment supporters led Floridians to believe the past decade of Republican-controlled Legislatures turned against the environment, and that we couldn’t let that continue.

If lawmakers won’t spend $300 million a year on land buying, the amendment supporters decided, they would force them to do it with a constitutional amendment.

Unfortunately, in spite of a few of us warning against approving the amendment, it’s safe to say, few Floridians knew the facts (see box) of just how much land the state already controlled.

Nor did they think of the consequences.

Start with this: When you think of nations that have had the worst environmental management disasters, what two countries come to mind at the top of the list? Of course: the former Soviet Union and China — communist countries where the government controlled the land.

And think of this choice: Who is most likely to be a better steward of the environment — an individual who owns his property, or a collective group, many of whom have no hands-on or financial stake in properties they will never see or step foot on?

It’s another Tragedy of the Commons. When the Pilgrims came to America, they started out as a collective. Everyone owned everything and each was taken care of according to his needs. For two years, the Pilgrims nearly starved to death. And then Col. William Bradford and the elders made a dramatic shift. They gave every family in the community his own piece of property for his own subsistence. The results? Huge annual surpluses of food.

Moral: Private ownership is far, far better than collective, public ownership. Everyone knows the public sector is less competent than the private sector, so it’s counter-logical to continue spending taxpayer money to buy more and more land and turn it over to government control.

Another bad part to this amendment: As Florida continues to grow in population, doc-stamp revenues will grow as well. If the state is awash in close to $1 billion a year in land-acquisition funds, as it is this year, think how much more money the state will have to spend. And we all know what the government does when it has money to spend. Inevitably, with the pressure to buy, the state will make inefficient, wasteful and poor purchases. This is as true as the sun rising in the east.

And this will go on for 20 years — $20 billion more for land buying and maintenance.

Extrapolate those 20 years and think of this consequence as well: When supply shrinks, prices go up.

In the state’s five-year acquisition plan, there are 118 potential sites, totaling more than 1.2 million acres. As the state acquires property, it contracts the available land for future development and removes that private property from tax rolls.

The economic consequences are simple: The price of developable land,  the cost of housing and property taxes all go up. California here we come.

Criticize lawmakers if you will for not budgeting the purchase of more land. But lawmakers are not thwarting the mandate of Amendment 1. They are being good stewards of your dollars and the environment this year.

With property ownership, you learn:  Take care of what you have before you succumb to spending and buying more than you can handle.

LOCAL TAXES ADD MORE

Since 1972, 29 of Florida’s 67 counties, eight municipalities and the Lake County Water Authority have developed their own local land-acquisition programs through sales or ad-valorem taxes. Local governments in Florida have raised more than $2 billion and have been responsible for the purchase of about 375,000 acres.