Today, Governor Rick Scott released his proposed 2014-15 Florida“It’s Your Money Tax Cut Budget” recommendations. In this election year, the Governor is arguing that he has a “commitment to protect, preserve and improve Florida’s environment.” Among the issues he highlighted in a press conference at the Capitol this morning in Tallahassee is funding for Everglades restoration, springs protection, and the purchase of conservation lands.
In the Governor’s Budget is:
- $180 million for completion of the C-44 Stormwater Treatment Area for Martin and St. Lucie counties and the Tamiami Trail project, providing needed water to EvergladesNational Park. The funds are also said to cover completion of Kissimmee River restoration to protect areas north and south of Lake Okeechobee, as well as the lake and surrounding counties. Some of that funding is not new, rather it is counting that which was allocated last fall when citizens rose up in communities bordering the St. Lucie, Indian and Caloosahatchee rivers due to the incredible amount of pollution that fouled their waterways from LakeO.
- $276 million in water projects is provided for wastewater/stormwater facility construction, drinking water facility construction and water quality planning.
- $50 million for springs protection projects and to address significant groundwater issues in and around springs. While that is a good amount, a group of state Senators (Montford, Simmons, Simpson, and Hays) have drafted a bill to clean up springs with an investment of $378 million per year for sewage hookups and septic tank improvements in springs areas.
- $70 million for Florida Forever, where $30 million will come from new cash and $40 million in theoretical “budget authority” from the proceeds of the sale of surplus non-conservation lands owned by the state.
While a new $30 million in revenue is the most the Florida Forever program has seen since 2008, the idea of selling off non-conservation lands to raise more funds sounds familiar. Since selling off conservation lands was a bad idea this past year (actually it was a total bust), the Governor is going back to do what he un-did in 2011. In that year, an environmental lobbyist, Sue Mullins, helped draft language in the budget that provided $305 million in spending authority for Florida Forever through the sale of non-conservation lands such as big-ticket urban office buildings, parking lots and warehouses. The bill passed, but was vetoed by Scott.
- $19 million for state park improvements, including repairs, renovations and development, as well as $4 million in ADA access improvements.
What is not in the Governor’s budget recommendations is another year’s funding for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program—which is using $11.5 million it received last year to fund the conservation of numerous ranch and timberlands, including those crucial to the protection of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge. Moreover, those easements on working lands are crucial to protecting and restoring the timing, condition and flow of waters into the Northern Everglades, Lake Okeechobee and its estuaries. The lack of attention to this conservation program could not come at a worse time for important water resource protection throughout south Florida.
However, he’s right when he also states that it is our money. And most of us would like to spend it protecting the things we love about Florida – our water and wildlife, our sense of place and a legacy we’re proud to pass on to our children. Given the amount of acres of unprotected lands important for conservation and the many willing landowners who want conservation easements on their properties, we need more money for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, and a substantial increase in Florida Forever funds.
Let’s hope when they meet this Spring, the Legislature rolls out a realistic and appropriate budget for preserving natural Florida including additional funding for our conservation easement programs.