By Maria Saporta
At long last, Georgia now has a pathway to create a dedicated funding source to conserve our land and water.
The state legislature on Thursday passed the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act calling for a referendum on a constitutional amendment that would dedicate a portion of existing state sales and use tax on outdoor recreation equipment to establish a conservation trust fund.
“Gov. (Nathan) Deal has publicly expressed his interest in signing a bill like this one,” said Robert Ramsay, president of the Georgia Conservancy.
When voters get an opportunity to vote on the Constitutional Amendment in November, Ramsay is optimistic it will pass – unlike a previous attempt in 1998, when a proposed “Heritage Fund” called for a new real estate transfer tax.
“A new tax or fee was not appetizing for Georgians,” Ramsay said. “Over the years, members of the conservation community have worked to try to pull together some legislation for what would work in Georgia.”
The Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act would dedicate a portion of the existing sales tax collected from the sale of outdoor sporting goods to the new fund.
In a special and touching move, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle invited former Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, a former president of the Georgia Conservancy, to preside over the Senate’s passage of the Act on the last day of the legislative session.
Howard along with multiple other environmental leaders throughout the state had been working to find a dedicated source of funding for conservation.
As currently envisioned, initially, 40 percent of Stewardship revenues would go into the fund – generating about $20 million a year.
“Once it’s proven an effective, prudent and fair use of tax dollars, we will be able to increase that cap to 80 percent,” Ramsay said. That would then double the amount of outdoor sales taxes that would be available for land conservation – roughly $40 million a year.
Ramsay said Georgia has lagged behind other Southeastern states, when it comes to setting aside public dollars for conservation. Florida, for example, invests at least $10 a year per person. Georgia’s average is about $2 a year per capita.
“This would us at $4 per capita,” Ramsay said. “It would put Georgia neck-and-neck with our peer states.”
While conservation groups ideally would have preferred a larger conservation trust fund, Ramsay was enthusiastic by the overwhelming bi-partisan support behind this legislation.
“It’s $20 million more than we currently have,” Ramsay said. The legislation also stipulates that these dollars are to supplement – not supplant – existing money going towards conservation. “The state would still have the flexibility to issue bonds.”
The Stewardship Act would sunset after 10 years, but the legislature could renew it without it having to go back to voters.
The fund would be invested into three different initiatives: to acquire new public land that has been prioritized by the Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan; to support the stewardship of existing state land; and to provide grants to local communities wanting to acquire green space.
An 11-member board will be chaired by the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and will include several state officials. That body will then decide on how to allocate those new funds. Ramsay said the money will remain in the fund until it is dispersed – so unused dollars will not end up going into the state’s general fund.
A strong coalition of environmental organizations were part of the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Coalition: The Conservation Fund; The Georgia Conservancy; Georgia Wildlife Federation; The Nature Conservancy; Park Pride; and The Trust for Public Land.
Ramsay said several other organizations also were behind the effort to get the bill passed: Friends of State Parks; Trees Atlanta; Georgia Municipal Association; Association County Commissioners Georgia; the Georgia Chamber of Commerce; and Trees Atlanta.
Such broad-based support bodes well for the passage of the Stewardship referendum in November.
“In December, we did go into the field with poll done by a polling firm out of Washington, D.C.,” Ramsay said. “Eighty percent of Georgians will vote for this at a very high intensity level – 90 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans.”
After more than 20 years of environmental groups trying to find a dedicated source of funding to conserve our environment throughout the state, it appears we are on the threshold of finally getting a fund to invest in our natural assets.
“Conservation is not a partisan issue in Georgia,” Ramsay said. “Almost every Georgian recognizes the importance of conserving our land and water.”