Spending on Florida's natural resources and environmental programs would grow by $220 million under a proposal by Gov. Rick Scott as he nears his final recommended state budget.
The $1.7 billion environmental package for lawmakers to consider in 2018 includes increased funding for the state's springs, beaches and parks, along with $355 million for Everglades restoration, $50 million to help the federal government speed repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee and $50 million for Florida Forever, the state's most prominent land-preservation fund.
The proposal, which will be included when Scott releases his overall budget recommendations before the end of the year, drew some scorn from Democrats who labeled him an “election year environmentalist” for past promises on Florida Forever funding. Scott is expected to run for U.S. Senate next year.
Meanwhile, conservationists said the proposal reflects a growing, positive change among Republican policymakers toward the environment since voters in 2014 approved a constitutional amendment that required increased spending on land and water preservation.
However, concerns remain that more funding is needed for Florida Forever and that Scott isn't adequately addressing the problems of sea-level rise and climate change.
“Hurricane Irma made it devastatingly clear that we need bold action and visionary leadership to confront the growing problems associated with sea-level rise and climate change,” Florida Conservation Voters Executive Director Aliki Moncrief said. “A robustly funded Florida Forever enables us to mitigate these problems by strategically conserving important wetlands and floodplains.”
Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, was more diplomatic. Draper noted that just a few years ago, many leading Republican lawmakers argued that the state had too much land in its inventory to justify preserving more.
“Overall, the budget addresses the most important issues: the springs, land conservation and the Everglades,” Draper said.
As he has with other budget rollouts, Scott held a pair of public events Monday to highlight aspects of the spending proposal, appearing mid-day at Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary outside Naples and later in the afternoon at Audubon's Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland. Lawmakers will consider the proposal during the 2018 legislative session, which starts in March.
Scott outlined the proposal as a way to protect more than the natural beauty of the state's resources.
“Our natural treasures are so important to Florida's economy and tourism industry and the many families that rely on them,” Scott said in a prepared statement.
The package includes $55 million for natural springs, $100 million for beaches and $50 million for the state parks.
The Senate has already started advancing a bill (SB 174) by Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, that would annually earmark $50 million for beach nourishment and inlet-management projects.
Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, has also proposed a measure (SB 204) that would provide $75 million a year forÂ natural springs.
Bradley has a separate measure (SB 370) that would set aside at least $100 million a year for Florida Forever.
Since 2001, Florida Forever has been used to purchase more than 718,000 acres for $2.9 billion. But the program has languished since the recession and as some key legislators have questioned the need for Florida to buy more land while struggling to manage the land it already owns.
Money for Scott's projects would come through the 2014 constitutional amendment, which directed lawmakers to use one-third of the revenue generated by a real estate tax for conservation measures.
The documentary-stamp tax is expected to generate $862.2 million next fiscal year for a trust fund used to carry out the amendment, according to an August estimate by state economists.
Lawmakers have already carved up the annual funding so at least $200 million goes for Everglades projects, another $64 million for a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee and $5 million to the St. Johns River Water Management District for projects dedicated to the restoration of Lake Apopka.
Environmental groups are battling the state in court about whether some of the trust-fund money has been improperly diverted from conservation purposes to agency staffing and operational expenses.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democrat running for governor in 2018, said Scott talks big on the environment when he's about to appear on the ballot.
“He promised that he'd request $150 million for Florida Forever each year in his second term --- and we're on Year #7 of his administration and he's now promising only $50 million,” Gillum said in a news release. “The governor is most prone to act on issues like this when he's about to see his name on the ballot, and this is no different. Delivering one-third of a promise is not a promise kept.”
When running for re-election in 2014, Scott campaigned on a $1 billion, 10-year environmental blueprint that in many aspects mirrored the environmental spending amendment that was also before voters at the time. The platform item included plans to request $150 million a year for Florida Forever.
Lawmakers didn't direct any money to Florida Forever for the current fiscal year that began July 1.
The Department of Environmental Protection requested that Scott include $50 million for Florida Forever in his next budget recommendation.