Florida Governor Rick Scott stopped by the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens Monday extolling his proposal for $1.7 billion in environmental funding next year — a more than $200 million boost from the current year.
But some critics are questioning the governor’s motive for the funding increase. Environmental groups who’ve traditionally been at odds with Scott are tepidly supportive of the governor’s proposal.
As part of next year’s budget request, Scott is asking for more than $350 million for Everglades restoration, $50 million to help repair the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee and another $50 million for the state’s land-buying program Florida Forever.
Audubon Florida’s Chris Farrell joined Scott for his Jacksonville announcement. He said the additional funding would go a long way to helping conservation efforts across the state.
“We are going to be able to meet some goals and move some projects forward, whereas in the past maybe we just had Florida Forever funding. There’s going to be a lot of work being done,” he said. “We definitely want to fund that program that’s been around for so long and hopefully get some funding for some projects around Northeast Florida.”
Some Democrats, including gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, have accused Scott of only requesting the conservation boost because the termed out Republican may have his sights on Democrat Bill Nelson’s U.S. Senate seat next year.
During his 2014 reelection campaign, Scott promised to fund Florida Forever at $150 million annually. After he secured office though, that promise never materialized. Voters passed a constitutional amendment diverting 33 percent of the documentary stamp tax to conservation that same year.
But Scott insists this year’s proposal is sincere and is based on what he thinks the state can afford.
“We’ve worked on where we can allocate the dollars the best way we can. If you look at the budget, $1.7 billion for the environment is where we believe we can have the biggest impact,” he said.
Scott hasn’t made the ask official yet, but when he does, lawmakers will have to choose between that and measures filed by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.
Bradley is asking for extra springs and St. Johns River restoration funding and is sponsoring another bill that would mandate double the amount of the governor’s Florida Forever proposal annually.
Audubon’s Farrell said his group will support whatever gets conservation the most funding.
“As much money as we can get in Florida Forever. That program has … established priorities throughout the state for where we want to do restoration and conservation projects,” he said.
Florida Forever’s budget was zeroed out for the current year, but since its inception in 2001, the program has purchased more than 700,000 acres of land.