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Land-buying program faces state budget ax

The Florida Senate is considering halting the state's premiere land-buying program, Florida Forever, as a way to stave off more pressing budget cuts.

The proposal, which is expected to be in the Senate's budget bill to be released this afternoon, would stop the state from issuing the remaining $250-million of $350-million worth of bonds that are issued each year to buy conservation land throughout the state. The move would save the state about $20-million in debt and interest payments each year.

"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 budget chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales. "It's tough to continue to borrow money that will be here three years from now while we try to keep essential services running."

Lawmakers are in Tallahassee meeting for a special legislative session as they figure out how to plug the state's $2.3-billion revenue shortfall this week.

Nobody had mentioned the Florida Forever program could be on the chopping block until rumors started swirling early Wednesday.

The Florida House, which has historically been less generous to land-buying programs than the Senate, also is considering the measure, according to one of the House's budget gurus, Rep. Marcelo Llorente, R-Miami.

Each year, the state issues $300-million worth of bonds to buy environmentally sensitive lands for Florida Forever, which has long been considered a national model for preserving sensitive land through public purchase.

Between 2001 and December 2006, Florida Forever dollars purchased nearly 550,000 acres. Just last session, Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature lauded legislation that extended the program through 2020.

When asked on Wednesday if he had heard about the Senate proposal to freeze the program, Crist said: "I haven't yet. I hope I don't."

So far this year, only $50-million worth of the $300-million in bonds have been issued to buy land. Part of the problem is that the pool of money that is pledged to cover the bonds for Florida Forever comes from documentary stamps revenue, a tax on real estate sales that has sharply declined. Also, the credit crisis has made it difficult to issue bonds, government and environmental experts say.

Environmentalists like Eric Draper of the Audubon Society said they were stunned when they first heard of the move on Wednesday. But they understand why the program is under the gun right now.

"If they're taking a one-year break because the economy's bad, we can live with that," Draper said. "But if this is stopping Florida Forever, let's call it what it is."

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 this is the prime time to purchase environmentally sensitive land, as prices have fallen to such a low.

But 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.

Later this year, Florida Forever dollars were slated to buy $200,000 Eagle Lake Park in Pinellas County, a land deal which has been under contract since 2006. Miami-Dade County projects on the list for this fiscal year, although not yet priced, are 16 acres for the Cora C. Harrison Preserve and 3 acres to expand the Crooked River Lighthouse Park.

Tallahassee Bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

Land-buying program faces state budget ax 01/07/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 8, 2009 11:20pm]
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