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Politics / Issues

Cabinet Approves Fl. Environmental, Law Chiefs

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Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Jon Steverson

Florida's top environmental official was directed Wednesday to rethink a proposal to make state parks more financially self-sustaining, as he and the state's top law-enforcement officer received Cabinet approval for the second time this year.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Jon Steverson and Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen received unanimous support from the Cabinet to remain in their $150,000-a-year jobs.

Both were initially recommended by Gov. Rick Scott in December and appointed a month later. But Steverson and Swearingen had to go through a new Cabinet-level agency head application process as they were among 16 Scott appointees who failed to land Senate confirmation during the 2015 legislative session.

Steverson and Swearingen must receive Senate confirmation in the 2016 session to retain their jobs. Unlike most state-agency heads, who answer to the governor, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Law Enforcement positions fall under Scott and the Cabinet.

The reappointment of Swearingen, who got endorsements Wednesday from the Florida Police Chiefs Association and the Florida Sheriffs Association, went much smoother than it did for Steverson.

Steverson drew praise from Cabinet members for his approach to maintaining Florida's land- and water-management policies against mandates from the federal government. However, he was also directed to bring the public into a proposal that would open state park land to hunting, cattle grazing and timber production as a way to generate additional revenue. Also, Steverson wants to contract with private firms to oversee controlled burns.

Steverson told Cabinet members that the proposal isn't to commercialize or privatize parks. But he said the state might not be able to continue maintaining all of its publicly owned land without the ability to generate additional revenue.

"This is a long-term conversation," Steverson said. "I want to have the conversation about the land management and closing the gap on sustainability so we don't have to have a separate conversation later on about which parks might we have to figure out we can do without."

But Cabinet members said he needs to rethink the proposal, which has drawn negative reaction from environmentalists.

"They're not going to be self-sustaining," Putnam said. "What it would take to manage the parks to be self-sustaining would be unacceptable to the reasons why we got them."

Steverson said after the meeting he intends to continue looking at ways to increase revenue, including outsourcing some services.

"I still want to have that conversation," Steverson said. "I want to say, 'Hey, what can we do to make our parks the most beneficial to the citizens of the state, to the visitors of the state, and to the environment which we're serving?' "

A trio of environmentalists told Scott and the Cabinet that state parks already generate about 75 percent of their operating revenue but are an invaluable economic engine in drawing tourists to Florida.

Jean Huffman, of Florida Parks in Peril, said Floridians showed their support through a 2014 constitutional amendment known as Amendment 1 which designated a greater share of a real-estate taxes used in the state budget to preserving and maintaining environmentally sensitive land and water.

"The people of Florida love their state parks," Huffman said. "Why are they being strangled like this?"

Huffman and Jono Miller, a Sarasota resident opposed to the commercialization of Myakka River State Park, also asked the Cabinet to postpone the Steverson approval until September, when they and other park supporters had understood Steverson's confirmation would go before the Cabinet.

Steverson's appointment was added to the Cabinet's agenda last week after Attorney General Pam Bondi backed off plans to offer an alternative candidate for the job.

Bondi said Wednesday she was satisfied with Steverson after they were able to sit down and discuss the position.

After the Cabinet meeting, Scott said Steverson should hold public meetings on his proposals.

"I think what the secretary ought to be doing is sitting down with everybody who uses the state parks and make sure we're doing the right thing for the state parks," Scott said.

Meanwhile in being reappointed as FDLE commissioner, Swearingen said he intends to seek approval from lawmakers in 2016 for additional money to raise the base salaries of sworn officers and crime lab technicians.

Swearingen said the pay increases are intended to make the state agency more competitive with local law enforcement throughout Florida and the Southeast United States.

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