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Environmental programs could suffer more budget cuts

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature's freezing of its premiere land-buying program is only the biggest and most high profile of several blows to environmental programs proposed with this round of budget cuts.

Both the House and Senate plan to sweep tens of millions of dollars from funds for environmental initiatives ranging from land management to cleaning polluted waterways.

Republican leaders in both chambers acknowledge they have pushed environmental initiatives down on the funding priority list, below transportation projects that faced comparatively fewer cuts. Both environmental and transportation projects rely on the same dwindling resource: a tax on real estate sales.

"Building roads creates jobs, and we need that in this economy," said Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

Alexander argued that while transportation projects create jobs, public land purchases are a double burden on taxpayers — once when the state buys the land with tax money, and again when the now-public lands are removed from state tax rolls.

Rep. Dean Cannon, a Winter Park Republican, said environmental programs shouldn't be sacrosanct, especially in a year when lawmakers are making deep cuts to schools and health care.

"It is more important that we prioritize people over things," said Cannon.

Environmentalists were still reeling Thursday from the Senate's proposal, which was first reported by the Times/Herald, to save $20-million over a full year by halting the Florida Forever land-buying program. Under the proposal, the state would stop issuing the remaining $250-million worth of Florida Forever bonds, used to purchase environmentally sensitive land. The House also is considering the measure.

Some of the other cuts to environmental programs include:

• Removing $5-million, or half the available dollars this fiscal year, from a fund dedicated to building new habitats for gopher tortoises.

• Pulling more than $35-million from a trust fund for land management, used for such programs as prescribed burns to prevent massive forest fires.

• Cutting $440,0000 for manatee rehabilitation at Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Miami Seaquarium and Sea World in Orlando. The programs can continue through this budget year, but their future is uncertain.

• Wiping out $10-million — all the funding this year — for the water quality assurance trust fund, which helps communities clean up polluted waterways.

Most lawmakers see the environmental slashing as a necessary evil, but a few are concerned that the Legislature is pursuing a knee-jerk unwinding of policies that took years to develop.

"Some of the dangers I see in what we're doing here, is we're making permanent changes to things that have been well-thought out over many, many years — and were good policy," said Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland. "I feel like we just made cuts to certain areas, but left alone other areas, like Department of Transportation."

Since the start of Florida Forever, the Southwest Florida Water Management District has purchased 50,640 acres in the 16-county region around Tampa Bay, at a cost of $177-million.

Robyn Hanke of the agency commonly known as Swiftmud said it was too early to tell what the impact might be on any specific projects slated for purchase this year. Even without Florida Forever money to spend, "we can look at different avenues for funding," she said.

Losing the Florida Forever funding for a year would be unfortunate, she said, "but we understand the Legislature is having to make some difficult choices."

An environmental organization that works with the state to buy property, the Nature Conservancy, also sounded a note of resignation Thursday. State director Jeff Danter said he understands why the Senate is considering such a drastic step and said his organization "applauds the commitment of the Senate leadership to continue Florida Forever in the future."

Swiftmud's Florida Forever purchases have protected lands as diverse as "sandy scrub for gopher tortoises to mangrove swamps along the edge of Tampa Bay," said Eric Sutton, Swiftmud's land resources director.

Most of the purchases statewide are made by the state Department of Environmental Protection. DEP officials released a list late Thursday that showed proposed purchases that would probably be put on hold if Florida Forever is suspended this year.

Several of the ones on the list for Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando counties were sites that local governments had already approved purchasing using their own money.

For instance, Pinellas County already has bought most of the land it hoped to acquire to expand Wall Springs Park, said Paul Cozzie, the county's bureau director of culture, education and leisure. But it was seeking $720,000 from the state to replenish its Penny for Pinellas fund.

The same goes for Eagle Lake Park at Belleair and Keene roads, he said. The county has already started construction there, but hoped to get $200,000 from the state to build back its funds for other purchases.

The exception in Pinellas appears to be Weaver Park in Dunedin, a parcel that straddles Alt. U.S. 19 and offers a view of the sound on one side and access to the Pinellas Trail on the other. County officials had approved splitting the cost with Dunedin, Cozzie said, but Dunedin officials were counting on a state grant for the rest.

"I don't know what they're going to do now," Cozzie said.

Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo and Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report.

Environmental programs could suffer more budget cuts 01/08/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 7:02pm]
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