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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Senate considers halting Florida Forever



Florida Senate leadership is considering halting the state's premiere land-buying program, Florida Forever, as a way to save about $20 million.

UPDATE: Check out what land-buying projects in your area may not happen here.

The proposal, which is expected to be in the Senate's budget bill to be released this afternoon, would stop the state from issuing some $250 million worth of bonds to buy conservation land throughout the state.  That move would save the state about $20 million in debt and interest payments that the state would not otherwise have to make on issuing the rest of those bonds.

The Florida House, which has historically been less generous to Florida Forever programs than the Senate, is also considering the measure, House budget guru Rep. Marcelo Llorente confirmed.

"It's hard to look law enforcement officers, who haven't had a raise in years, in the eye and tell them we're buying land," said Senate Ways and Means Chariman Sen. J.D. Alexander. "It's tough to continue to borrow money that will be here three years from now while we try to keep essential services running."

The Florida Forever fund, in which the state issues $300 million worth of bonds annually, has long been considered a national model. Between its inception in 2001 and December 2006, nearly 550,000 acres have been purchased. So far in the 2008-2009 fiscal year, only $50 million worth of the $300 million in bonds have been issued to buy land.

Environmentalists, like Eric Draper of the Audubon Society, said they were stunned when they first heard of the move on Wednesday. But some understand why the program is under the gun, while hoping to mediate the cut, so that perhaps not all the bond issuance will disappear.

Others like Manley Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation called eliminating the funding a "very bad decision" and a "very serious mistake," pointing out that land prices have finally fallen.

But Sen. Alexander countered that land prices may fall yet still. And some of the projects in line to be purchased may yet be purchased in the future for an even cheaper price.

[Last modified: Tuesday, September 14, 2010 3:12pm]


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