By Jessica Ferris
After a grueling legislative session, nine amendments, three committee votes, and finally late-night House and Senate floor votes last month, SB 1078 has passed and is on its way to the governor’s office to be signed into law.
Those following the bill have watched as it evolved from a straight abolition of soil and water conservation districts to its current state: an insidious, under-the-belt attack on those who seek a volunteer elected position to assist in the protection of our natural resources.
The bill limits who qualifies to run for the districts, effectively pushing out scientists, teachers, engineers, grant managers, community leaders, and many other qualified individuals invested in seeing our soil and water resources protected.
As written, the bill allows only those directly involved in agriculture or recently retired from agriculture to run for the office. In practice, this means that urban districts with limited farmer populations will lose representation.
Further, the restructuring of the districts into single-member subdivisions will make the recruitment of qualified candidates even more difficult, as not all the subdivisions in each county will have a qualified agricultural worker or retiree. That, compounded with requirements a SWCD board must meet with five members, will lead to dissolution of SWCD boards in counties that need them the most.
If this bill becomes law, Florida will begin dissolving its soil and water districts beginning in January 2023. Such a move directly contradicts the governor’s priorities regarding the environment as he stated in 2019, “Our water and natural resources are the foundation of our economy and our way of life in Florida. The protection of water resources is one of the most pressing issues facing our state.”
Why dissolve a publicly-elected board whose purpose is to “coordinate assistance from all available sources — public and private, local, state and federal—to develop locally-driven solutions to natural resources concerns”, as described by the National Association of Conservation Districts.
The bill raises other questions about the precedent the State of Florida is willing to set around publicly elected positions and whether they are willing to push the boundaries of what would be allowed under the 14th Amendment.
As the St. Johns Soil and Water Conservation District Chair, Nicole Crosby, stated, “Only reasonable restrictions are allowed under the 14th amendment. This precedent-setting restriction is clearly unconstitutional and will likely be challenged in court on the taxpayer’s dime.”
The districts serve a multitude of purposes around the state: some contract with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to enroll landowners in best management practices, others sponsor farmers markets or gleaning programs that help address food insecurity in underserved communities. Still others are active in their local 4-H programs and sponsor poster contests for school children.
District activities are dependent on their local priorities and are a direct reflection of the communities they serve. They operate at no cost to the taxpayer and in return, donate their time and energy to educating the public about our state’s natural resources.
Dismantling the districts will not further the governor’s environmental objectives and will only add unnecessary burdens and additional expense to Florida taxpayers.
Jessica Ferris serves on the Leon Soil and Water Conservation District. This piece first appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat, which is part of the Invading Sea collaborative of Florida editorial boards focused on the threats posed by the warming climate.