Amid mounting criticism of his stance on climate change and his secret hunting trip to Texas with sugar industry officials, Gov. Rick Scott on Monday unveiled an eight-page plan for how he will improve Florida's environment if the voters give him four more years in office.
Scott, speaking before the Martin County Chamber of Commerce and the Loxahatchee River Environmental Center in Jupiter, pledged to spend $1 billion on restoring the Everglades, cleaning up the polluted Indian River Lagoon, saving the state's declining springs and providing more water for the state's continued growth.
"Florida's natural beauty is a big reason why this is the best state in the country to call home," Scott said.
But Scott's plan lacks details, such as where he'd get the money. In some instances his plan calls for commitments beyond the power of a governor to carry out. Critics also note that this enthusiastic embrace of environmental protection runs counter to the approach his administration took during his first term.
For instance, when Scott signed his first budget in 2011, he vetoed the entire $305 million annual appropriation for Florida Forever, the state's politically popular environmental land-buying program that, among other things, saved areas important for recharging the underground aquifer, the main source of Florida's drinking supply. In that first year, Scott also cut $700 million from the budgets of the state's water management districts, which oversee withdrawals from the aquifer and issue permits for filling wetlands.
Now Scott says he wants to spend $150 million a year for Florida Forever. But instead of solely focusing on buying environmentally sensitive forests, beaches and wetlands, his plan says that money would be spent to "protect and take care of working agricultural landscapes," listing that buyout for beleaguered farmers and ranchers first, before parks and conservation land. His plan gives no further details.
In 2011, Scott's Department of Environmental Protection ended a springs restoration initiative launched by former Gov. Jeb Bush. Under Scott's plan, he's promising to spend $500 million on springs over 10 years — though that's six years longer than Scott would be in office, if re-elected.
In 2011, Scott also cut $700 million from the budgets of the state's water management districts, which oversee protection of the aquifer and providing money for finding alternative sources for water besides pumping it from the ground. The Southwest Florida Water Management District, for instance, helped pay for Tampa Bay Water's reservoir and desalination plant.
Now Scott's plan calls for "a 10-year, $500 million funding program for alternative water supply investment that requires an applicant to meet water conservation benchmarks to qualify for funding." The plan offers no further details of what that might mean, or how Scott would guarantee the program would continue after his second term ends.
Scott's plan also calls for persuading legislators to beef up penalties on polluters — something they have declined to do in the past.
Scott has been under fire this past week after the Times/Herald revealed that he, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Florida legislative leaders had been taking secret hunting trips to King Ranch in Texas, accompanied by officials of the sugar industry, who last year sought a break on the amount of money they have to pay to clean up pollution in the Everglades.
Scott has also taken flak for his stance on climate change. In 2011 he said he did not believe humans could alter the planet's temperature, but more recently he has modified that to simply saying, "I'm not a scientist." His environmental plan makes no mention of climate change.
Environmental groups that have been critical of Scott's action in the past, such as the Florida Conservation Coalition, said they were hopeful this new plan is not an election-year gimmick.
"He's saying the right things," the FCC's Estus Whitfield said. "I just hope he means it."
Information from the Associated Press and the Palm Beach Post was used in this story. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected] Follow him @craigtimes.