TALLAHASSEE -- As negotiations for the state’s yearly budget get closer and closer to a resolution, one line item has environmentalists shaking their heads.
The initial offer for funding Florida’s premier land acquisition program, Florida Forever, is less than half what some expected going into budget negotiations.
The House is offering a little more than $20 million, and the Senate’s offer sits at $45 million. The numbers are a far cry from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed $100 million and even farther from the wishes of some environmentalists, who wanted to see a number to the tune of $300 million.
Last year the program was funded for $100 million.
“Now we’re talking about $45 [million] to $20 million,” said David Cullen, of the Sierra Club. “It’s really hard to get excited about that.”
The governor had environmentalists pleasantly surprised, not just when he made a commitment to Florida Forever, but even before when he spent a handful of paragraphs during his inauguration speech focusing on the environment.
“Our economic potential will be jeopardized if we do not solve the problems afflicting our environment and water resources,” he said to rousing cheers.
Sen. Debbie Mayfield, chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, said Thursday night that there is plenty of money going toward the environment to please the governor and residents of Florida alike. It’s a tough issue to balance the budget, she said, but she expects the number to rise before the budget is final.
“People know how important it is,” said Mayfield, a Vero Beach Republican.
Senate Budget Chair Rob Bradley said he fought hard for last year’s number and plans to “to do more for Florida Forever this year.”
“Right now we need to be focusing on making sure we spend an adequate amount of money on land acquisition,” he said.
Florida Forever is the largest public land acquisition program of its kind in the United States and currently manages about 10 million acres. More than 2.5 million acres were purchased under the program and its predecessor, Preservation 2000.
In 1999, as Preservation 2000 was set to expire, then-Gov. Jeb Bush signed the Florida Forever Act, which was aimed at continuing preservation of the state’s heralded environmental landscape. Of all the bills passed that year, Bush called Florida Forever “the most significant.”
It was meant to provide $300 million annually, in addition to about $100 million from other public trusts.
By 2008, however, the fund had been dipped into for other things triggered by the economic recession. The state was able to keep its strong economy by cutting $300 million from land-buying bonds. By 2012, there was $0 left.
Voters took the matter into their own hands in 2014, and voted on a ballot initiative that mandated that 33 percent of revenue from real-estate documentary stamps would go to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.
Since the passage of Amendment 1 in 2014, legislators each year have directed at least $200 million to the Everglades, $64 million to a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area, $50 million to natural springs and $5 million to Lake Apopka.
Jonathan Webber, of Florida Conservation Voters, got his start at the organization when the group first formed to launch the campaign for Amendment 1. He called the budget proposal “unacceptable.”
More than 800 people from their network have reached out to members of the conference committee to express their concerns, he said, and land acquisition is the group’s top issue by far.
“It’s all we hear about,” Webber said. “Year after year after not getting what they thought we’d get after Amendment 1 — they’re angry.”
Webber added that after a summer of debilitating red tide and algae blooms choking the state’s coasts and waterways, it’s obvious that what the lawmakers are doing is wrong.
“We can do a lot of good work with $100 million. $45 [million] is too low and it’s unacceptable,” he said. “Everybody knows it. They do, too.”
Cullen, of the Sierra Club, said anything the state does to sacrifice land to development is “unwise.”
“Short-term thinking is fine if you can get up and leave when you’ve used up all the resources,” he said. “But they will be leaving behind a state of over 20 million people who will not be able to leave. That’s irresponsible. It’s a dereliction of duty.”
Elizabeth Alvi, the policy director of Audubon Florida, said Amendment 1 brought to light how important land conservation is to Floridians. She said with an equation of consistent funding and continued interest, the state will be better off.
“Buying land has ancillary benefits. You preserve habitat, and it’s beneficial for birds and wildlife,” she said. “The forests keeps the carbon footprint minimized which helps with clean air … This is a very, very important program for Floridians, and it’s really important for our legislators to keep that in mind.”