A question for Georgia voters: set aside money for land stewardship?

By Maggie Lee

Every year, the partisans of countless causes push for funding from the Georgia Legislature; some win and some lose. A question on Georgia ballots would put land conservation and stewardship a step above that fight, by setting aside part of an existing tax to pay for it.

“Amendment one” would take part of the sales tax on “outdoor recreation equipment” — think a fishing pole or a mountain bike — and earmark it for things like land acquisition and improving the parks Georgia already has.

That could include things fixing up trails, acquiring gopher tortoise habitat in south Georgia or purchasing urban forest in metro Atlanta. A board of trustees would decide which projects get grants from the fund. The things they’d look at include protecting water quality, wildlife habitat, heritage sites and creating buffers around military installations.

Vaughter's Farm, the last dairy farm landscape in DeKalb County, saved with state of Georgia funds at Arabia Mountain. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Vaughters’ Farm, the last dairy farm landscape in DeKalb County, saved with state of Georgia funds at Arabia Mountain. Credit: Kelly Jordan

“We fall way behind other states in the money we spend on the outdoors,” said state Rep. Sam Watson, R-Moultrie, sponsor of the two pieces of legislation that set up the public vote. He said the Legislature felt like it was time to do this to protect the environment, protect natural resources and get the state’s existing facilities up-to-date.

He said Georgia’s had great economic growth, but it’s got to make sure it still has a great quality of life, places for people to go enjoy the outdoors, spend time with their families and relax.

Funding would start at about $20 million per year starting in July, 2019, if voters approve it. Watson said that’s about what the Georgia Department of Natural Resources requests annually for this kind of thing, so being as this is a new process and a new way of doing things, he wanted to start by making sure the DNR, the trustees and everyone else does the right thing.

If it goes to their satisfaction, lawmakers can raise the fund to a maximum of approximately $40 million per year without going back to voters. In 2029, the fund ends if the Legislature does not renew it.

And the fund would get cut in steps if sales tax revenues fall, which can happen in recessions. So if things like schools and child protection were facing deep cuts, conservation and stewardship would get cut too.

In Atlanta, state money has already made possible the acquisition of land for projects like Vine City Park, Morningside Nature Preserve and Kirkwood Urban Forest, said Michael Halicki, executive director of Park Pride, a metro nonprofit that helps communities improve their parks and which supported the legislation. He said that in those cases, state money got other folks to the table, like the city of Atlanta and groups like his that bring volunteers and other philanthropic resources.

Halicki sees this fund filling that role in metro Atlanta — not paying full freight on big-ticket projects — but contributing toward selected city or county projects within the metro. Like say, protecting urban forests.

A $20 to $40 million fund can seem small, when it comes to covering a whole state. But Halicki is thinking of pieces of that as leverage to get those other folks at the table.

“When you go with the approach of leverage, this puts different projects in play that frankly just wouldn’t happen without there being another source of funding that would actually put them on the table,” he said.

But why a dedicated fund, and not just full legislative control over this, as other causes?

A rainbow in Chattahoochee Hills. Credit: Kelly Jordan

A rainbow in Chattahoochee Hills. Credit: Kelly Jordan

A dedicated fund means a better deal for the taxpayers, said Robert Ramsay, president of Georgia Conservancy, a nonprofit that works across the state and another supporter of the legislation. The example he gave was voluntary land acquisition on behalf of the public. Ramsay said that if dollars are known to be available, the folks negotiating to buy can plan ahead.

“If we’re always in this mode of reacting, then we don’t really get the best value for taxpayers’ dollars,” said Ramsay.

He also said that other states have dedicated conservation and stewardship funding.

“As it relates to quality of life, it becomes a competitive disadvantage when your state is not demonstrating that … long-term commitment to those types of goals,” he said.

Broken park roads and species left without a place to live don’t exactly appeal to would-be new residents, current residents, businesses or vacationers.

But this funding idea appealed broadly to Democrats and Republicans both in the state Legislature, which overwhelmingly approved the public vote earlier this year.

It’ll appear as amendment one on ballots, beginning “Without increasing the current state sales tax rate, shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to create the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund …”

The fine print:

Enabling legislation, House Bill 332

Ballot language, House Resolution 238

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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