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Voters across the country passed 51 of 60 conservation funding initiatives on November 6, 2018. Most of the initiatives were on local ballots, and of the four statewide initiatives—two in California, one in Rhode Island, and one in Georgia—three passed.
In Georgia, voters elected to dedicate up to 80 percent of the state’s sales tax revenues from outdoor recreation equipment to a new Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund. Money in the fund is to be used for conservation, parks and trails, and wildlife management. Parks and conservation advocates in the state declared victory when the initiative passed because it provided the state’s first dedicated funding for conservation. In this blog post, we’ll look a little closer at the details and compare this new approach in Georgia to programs in other states.
“No new taxes.” The trust fund will get its money from existing sales tax revenues. This was a point of emphasis to reassure voters of “no new taxes” and probably factored into the 83 percent support the initiative got at the polls. In this way, Georgia will be similar to Texas, which dedicates the portion of its sales tax revenues that comes from sporting goods to state and local parks. (One difference: in Texas, the state comptroller estimates the amount collected on a set of products, while in Georgia, it’s the amount collected at particular retail establishments.) The Georgia and Texas approaches differ from programs in Arkansas, Missouri, and Minnesota, each of which has a dedicated sales tax on all goods and services of between one-tenth and three-eighths of one percent, with revenues going directly to parks and conservation; these small taxes are in addition to the general sales tax in each state.
Guaranteed money? The Georgia law creating the Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund, upon approval at the polls, specifies that money in the fund “shall not lapse to the general fund” and that funds used for conservation will “supplement, not supplant, department resources.” The sentiments expressed in this language are good ones and meant to reassure supporters, but call me a skeptic. Nothing fully guarantees these outcomes, both of which have occurred repeatedly in other states.
Several states have learned the hard way that an amendment to the state constitution is the only way to ensure that money from a dedicated, or earmarked, revenue source will not lapse into the general fund. This was the solution adopted by Florida voters in 2014 after funds from the Florida Forever program, a $300 million per year conservation program funded by a document stamp tax, were diverted to other uses. (Wiggle room in how the funds may be spent has still created discontent.)
Even a constitutional amendment doesn’t guarantee that the “supplement, not supplant” provision will hold. In almost every case where a state has adopted a dedicated funding program, the legislature has ended up reducing appropriations from the general fund. This has especially been the case for state parks, which in many states, now receive no general fund revenues. Many state natural resource departments, and state parks agencies, are willing to accept this outcome if it means less year-to-year fluctuation in their budgets. But if money from the fund still comes via the legislative appropriations process—and it does in the new Georgia program—then it isn’t clear that fluctuations are going away.
How does Georgia measure up? According to the Trust for Public Land’s Conservation Almanac, 33 states had some kind of dedicated conservation funding program in 2016. Georgia was not one of them. But simply having a program in place doesn’t mean that a state is accomplishing a lot. Some states—like Minnesota and Florida, mentioned above, as well as Colorado, Maryland, and Michigan, among others—have robust programs in which substantial funding is generated from a broad-based tax such as a sales or real estate tax, or from state lottery proceeds or mineral and oil and gas leasing revenues. But even in these cases, the money can be used for a variety of things. It might be stretched thin, paying for new land and easements, capital investments, and state park operating costs, to name a few. The devil’s in the details. For comparison, though, in 2016, Maryland and New York generated $154 million and $302 million, respectively, from real estate transfer taxes dedicated to conservation. The new Georgia program is estimated to generate $20 million per year.
It will be important to monitor how the new Georgia program performs in the coming years and whether the state expands its new program with additional funding. For now, the state has taken some baby steps for conservation.