The Politics of Land Acquisition Shouldn’t Be Just a Numbers Game

The Politics of Land Acquisition Shouldn’t Be Just a Numbers Game

One might be forgiven for being a bit perplexed by the current Florida legislative session. With the Republicans in solid control of both chambers, a Republican in the Governor’s Mansion, and Republicans elected to the other three Cabinet positions as well, one might have imagined a legislative session that would have been over almost before it began:

Day One: Convene

Day Two: Adopt the Florida Republican Party’s platform

Day Three: Adjourn

Of course, it might need to be a little more prolonged than that. Individual legislators have projects of local interest they want to advance. Working out the details of those, especially in light of the Corcoran Memo, might take a tad bit longer.

But here we are, at the halfway mark, and analysts are speculating about whether or not the Legislature will be able to pass a budget on time.

(Of course, in fairness, that’s what analysts always do. Otherwise, we have nothing to talk about!)

The concern about the budget impasse, this time around, would appear to be more than spilled printer’s ink. The House and Senate appear to have substantially different visions of Florida’s near-term future, and it shows in the budget numbers.

Take environmental land acquisition.

Just this past November, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment  that obligated the state to use a third of the net proceeds of the document tax every year for a range of environmental land activities.

I imagine some voters thought it all would be used to buy sensitive lands, or to clean up our polluted springs. But the language of the amendment was broad enough, at least arguably, to allow a much wider range of uses. And the two houses have pursued very different sets of priorities in implementing that language.

I can see the lawsuits coming.

I have considerable sympathy for the Legislature on this one. I’ve never been comfortable with the magic numbers in the Florida Constitution, whether we are talking about class size, environmental land acquisition, or the life of a pregnant sow (seriously, how did we get that one in our constitution?).

What’s fundamentally wrong with all of these numbers it that they fail to acknowledge the larger context in which they must be considered. A particular ratio of students to teachers may indeed be ideal for learning, but tradeoffs may arise that will make the return on the investment in additional classrooms less than other innovative investments in education. And spending substantially on environmental restoration and preservation may indeed be called for, but it seems likely that the priority to be placed on such investments might reasonably wax and wane with conditions . . . but we’ll have to keep spending the same share of the tax proceeds regardless.

Budgets don’t really work this way. Take a reasonable approach to household budgeting (a simpler thing than the state budget, but humor me). It might be our plan to spend 10% of our household budget on food (trying to be a little smarter than the national average of 12.9%). But the increasingly severe drought in California may push the cost of fruits and vegetables up significantly, or a food allergy may flare up that complicates the household diet and food budget. We’ll have to adjust . . . and, fortunately, we can make changes in our household budget according to circumstances (at least within the absolute constraint of total income).

But fix a number in the Florida Constitution, and one’s hands are tied.

So, as much as I support preserving our natural treasures and habitat for our diverse assortment of indigenous species, and as much as I long for our amazing springs to be crystalline and pure as they once were, I’d rather give the Legislature some room to maneuver, rather than tying their hands as tightly as possible to an arbitrary number that sounded good at the time.

And I’d rather hold them accountable for satisfying public expectations at the ballot box than in the accountant’s ledger . . . or in the courtroom.

Fantasy? Yes, to some extent. The Fair Districts Amendments are beginning to demonstrate that they have teeth, but even fair districts won’t guarantee a responsive legislature. For that, we need at least two competitive parties, and large percentages of voters to become familiar with the record of elected officials on the issues that matter to them.

That’s not easy to achieve . . . but it is precisely what a republican form of government requires.

Let’s make public engagement, not percentage allocation, our number one priority.