Wednesday, April 25, 2018
News Roundup

Florida Forever? More like Florida Never after Legislature spends zero dollars on land-buying program

Once again, the Florida Legislature has turned the politically popular Florida Forever program into Florida Never.

The budget that legislative leaders have approved — but which Gov. Rick Scott has yet to sign — calls for spending zero dollars on the Florida Forever program to buy up environmentally sensitive land.

That's not what the voters had in mind when they approved Amendment 1 in 2014 by an overwhelming margin, environmental advocates say.

"I am terribly disappointed that the will of the voters has been ignored by our elected legislative body," said Nat Reed, founder of 1,000 Friends of Florida. "Every year that there is no funding for Florida Forever is a lost year for Floridians."

The budget also includes no money for a grants program for local parks. Instead, its only land-buying component sets aside $10 million to pay ranchers not to develop their property.

The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, calls himself "the father of Florida Forever" because he backed the bill that created the program. But he told reporters Wednesday that he was "obviously disappointed" that he couldn't come up with any money for it.

Latvala blamed Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, saying that the House insisted on holding back millions more in reserve than the Senate. Still, Latvala contended that environmental spending as a whole made out pretty well, with funding for an Everglades reservoir, the beaches and the springs.

"If buying raw land suffers for a year, so be it," Latvala said. "Next year I'll try to fix that."

But "wait till next year" has become a familiar refrain for Florida Forever.

Legislators have repeatedly stripped money out of the program and spent it on other purposes. That's the reason why environmental advocates came up with Amendment 1, explained Will Abberger of the Trust for Public Land, who headed the group that pushed for the amendment's passage in 2014.

"The main impetus was the fact that the money for Florida Forever was zeroed out in 2009," he said. So his group designed a constitutional amendment that would tell legislators "this needs to be a priority for our state."

A TV ad that ran before the 2014 election spelled out its goal, showing clouds marching across the sky over the Everglades, a rainbow and a girl swimming in a spring.

"What's more important than protecting Florida's natural areas?" the ad's narrator said. "For water. For wildlife. For people." Vote for Amendment 1, the ad said, if you want to "protect and restore" Florida's "drinking water, lakes, beaches, lakes, rivers and springs."

And people did. Amendment 1 passed in 2014 with 75 percent of the vote, a far higher margin of victory than for Gov. Rick Scott or any other politician running statewide.

However, Amendment 1 could only go so far. The decision on how to spend the money remained in the hands of the Florida Legislature. Instead of using it to buy land, lawmakers steered the money into salaries for the staff of the state parks and state forest system.

As a result, groups such as the Florida Defenders of the Environment, the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club sued the state to overturn those spending decisions. If the Legislature fails to spend any money on Florida Forever again, that could lead to yet another lawsuit.

"We'll look at it very carefully to see if it could be the basis for a new challenge," said Joseph Little, the University of Florida law professor representing the Florida Defenders of the Environment in court.

One House member said the Legislature's reluctance to hand over millions to a land-buying program is a signal that times have changed.

"The situation today is different than it was in 1990" when Florida's original land-buying program, Preservation 2000, started, said state Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, who chairs the Government Accountability Committee. "We've acquired millions of acres since then."

Some legislators are wary of allowing even more land to be taken off the tax rolls in the name of environmental preservation, he said. Still others, he said, were unhappy with the large amount of debt that the state has incurred to run its land-buying program. Caldwell pushed a bill that passed the House to guarantee some money would go to Florida Forever starting next year. But it has not been passed by the Senate.

Abberger pointed out that, just as when the Florida Forever program started, Florida underwent a building boom. With no money for Florida Forever, that renewed development will probably swallow up some of the 2 million acres now included as priority acquisitions on the list prepared by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

"Once that's developed, it's gone," Abberger said. "We're spending billions of dollars to undo past mistakes in the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee. Why can't we get money set aside to make sure we don't make similar mistakes elsewhere?"

Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.

Comments
Sheriff: Sunlake SRO who took down student ‘did what he had to do’

Sheriff: Sunlake SRO who took down student ‘did what he had to do’

At a news conference on Wednesday, Nocco identified the officer as Richard Stackon, who joined the Sheriff’s Office in 1994. Stackon has spent "several years" as an SRO, Nocco said, and he had nothing in his file "that stands out." Around 1 p.m., Noc...
Updated: 4 minutes ago

Comcast challenges Murdoch with rival bid for U.K.-based Sky

LONDON — U.S. media giant Comcast on Wednesday offered $30.7 billion for Sky PLC, topping a bid from Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox and setting up a bidding war for Britain’s biggest satellite TV company.Comcast said it would pay approximately $17...
Updated: 5 minutes ago

Man on Clearwater Beach pulled from water, hospitalized

CLEARWATER — A 33-year-old man pulled from the water north of Pier 60 was hospitalized Wednesday afternoon.Clearwater Fire & Rescue spokesman Rob Shaw said a bystander noticed the Dunedin man, who has not been identified, was in trouble and brought h...
Updated: 16 minutes ago
A religious group has settled in a big pink house in Clearwater. Neighbors aren’t happy.

A religious group has settled in a big pink house in Clearwater. Neighbors aren’t happy.

CLEARWATER — The first thing John Trevena noticed about his new neighbors was the color of their house: Pepto-Bismol pink.It didn’t worry Trevena, a criminal defense lawyer who moved into the three-bedroom rental home next door in 2015."I knew it was...
Updated: 20 minutes ago
Sprouts Farmers Market to open new store in Pasco County

Sprouts Farmers Market to open new store in Pasco County

TRINITY — Pasco County will be getting its first Sprouts Farmers Market, the organic grocery chain announced Wednesday. The new store will open at the Village at Mitchell Ranch on State Road 54 and Little Road. Officials with the speciality store did...
Updated: 22 minutes ago
Duke Energy announces new Florida leadership

Duke Energy announces new Florida leadership

The head of Duke Energy Florida is leaving the post to take a new role with the parent company of the electric utility.Harry Sideris was appointed this week to serve as vice president and chief distribution officer overseeing Duke Energy’s six-state ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Circle K launching own gas at eight Hillsborough locations

Circle K launching own gas at eight Hillsborough locations

TAMPA — Circle K is converting the gas station portion of eight of its Hillsborough locations to Circle K fuel. Previously, the fuel was provided by other brands, such as Shell. The new Circle K branding also brings with it the Canadian-owned conveni...
Updated: 1 hour ago
DNA linked former police officer to serial killings

DNA linked former police officer to serial killings

SACRAMENTO — A DNA match in the past six days tied a former police officer to some of the crimes committed by a California serial killer behind at least 12 homicides and 45 rapes throughout the state in the 1970s and ‘80s, police officials announced ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Rays bring Jonny Venters back to majors

Rays bring Jonny Venters back to majors

The Rays have called up LHP Jonny Venters, the former Braves star reliever who has not pitched in the majors since 2012.Venters, 33, had been at Triple-A Durham, posting a 1.59 ERA in 5 games, after a strong showing this spring for the Rays.He has re...
Updated: 1 hour ago
For starters: Rays at Orioles, weather permitting (again)

For starters: Rays at Orioles, weather permitting (again)

The Rays and Orioles are going to try again to play tonight, though the tarp was on the field this afternoon and a light rain falling with heavier precipitation expected later.The Rays, who called up veteran reliever Jonny Venters this afternoon, are...
Updated: 1 hour ago