AJC.com January 26, 2018

Legislation to protect green space in Georgia

A coalition of Georgia conservation groups is rallying behind a new effort to pass a constitutional amendment that would set aside about $40 million each year for more parks and green space, armed this year with powerful supporters and a governor who is open to the idea.

The measure, House Bill 332, struggled to gain traction during last year’s legislative session. But conservationists are marshaling forces this year in hopes the plan can land on the November ballot. They released a poll Friday suggesting a broad majority of voters back the idea.

“This is an investment in an economic engine that’s really important to the state of Georgia,” said Robert Ramsay, the head of the Georgia Conservancy. “And we have that opportunity because Georgia’s been so blessed with natural resources.”

The legislation would dedicate 75 percent of the existing state sales tax on outdoor recreation equipment to a conservation fund to buy new parkland, protect water and wildlife, and improve existing green space.

The fund would be overseen by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and financed from existing taxes for equipment purchased for camping, hunting, fishing and other outdoor sports. The annual amount would be calculated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and it would not include any tax dollars from sales of boats, motor homes and four-wheelers.

It would need two-thirds support in each house of the Legislature and approval by a majority of voters to get baked into Georgia’s law. Supporters are seeking this step because it’s the only way to dedicate specific annual funding for green space — and because the steady stream gives conservation groups and governments more predictability each year.

“This gives us an opportunity to be strategic about the way we acquire resources for the people of Georgia,” said Mike Worley, the president of the Georgia Wildlife Federation.

“This is in no way a criticism, but the way we’ve operated in the past is opportunistic,” he said. “The opportunity arises, you find the funding and buy the land if you can. If you’re able to have dedicated funding, you can develop a plan and execute it.”

The backers are set to introduce a new version of the legislation. It would call for the tax dollars to be spent in three broad areas: buying new state parkland, improving existing green space and matching funds for local governments.

And it would create a valve to allow the state to draw down the funds in case of an economic recession — a concession to fiscal hawks and legislative leaders worried about funding state government in a downturn.

There are signs it is gaining traction. Gov. Nathan Deal said through a spokeswoman that he is “receptive” to the proposal in his final legislative session in office. A bipartisan cast of lawmakers that includes House Majority Leader Jon Burns has signed on to the proposal. No substantial opposition has yet publicly emerged under the Gold Dome.

And a poll conducted by McLaughlin and Associates, a conservative-leaning firm with ties to many Georgia GOP figures, shows about 80 percent of Georgia voters would back the language on the proposed amendment. That includes nearly 7 in 10 Republicans.

Supporters also say they’ve learned from the last effort to set aside more state funding for green space. The 1998 constitutional amendment to create a “Heritage Fund” lost by a 53-47 vote, in part because it riled up fiscal conservatives because it would have increased the state property deed transfer tax.

That’s one reason this year’s measure is designed to shift existing tax dollars rather than levy a new fee.

Supporters are also casting it as an economic development incentive that would help lure firms that factor green space and wildlife into their relocation calculus. And they pitch it as a way to squeeze more out of the state’s environmental resources.

“If you buy a Cadillac and don’t change the oil, what’s the point?” said Thomas Farmer, the head of the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Coalition. “We want to be able to have some funding to make our state lands the best in the country.”