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One more time to revive Florida Forever before it’s Florida Never

The Legislature begins its annual session on Tuesday, and the Republicans are completely in control. But that doesn’t mean GOP leaders have agreed on priorities or agendas. To help you sort through the key issues, we bring you “For A Better Florida,” the Tampa Bay Times preview of the session. Published every year since 1951, it presents news articles and opinions intended to stimulate debate over some of the most important issues facing our state.
[Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.]
[Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.]
Published Jan. 5, 2018

In years past, the Florida Legislature has grappled with such major environmental issues as saving the Everglades, halting damaging releases from Lake Okeechobee and managing the state's runaway growth.

This year, though, you could say that the big environmental issue is money.
Or you could say that the issue is whether legislators ever pay attention to what the voters want.

One environmental advocate thinks Hurricane Irma might actually help produce a different outcome from what's happened repeatedly since 2014.
Florida once had a politically popular land-buying program called Florida Forever that preserved some of the remaining wild places in the state's rapidly developing landscape. But then the Legislature started draining the money off to spend on other projects.

Between 2009 and 2014, lawmakers slashed its funding by more than 97 percent.

So in 2014, frustrated environmental advocates mustered enough support to put on the ballot a measure called Amendment 1. This constitutional amendment was intended to require the state to revive the funding for Florida Forever.

A TV ad that ran before the 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 narrator said. Vote for Amendment 1, the ad said, if you want to "protect and restore" Florida's "drinking water, lakes, beaches, lakes, rivers and springs."

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. The vote garnered national attention because it was the largest land conservation measure ever approved in a single state.

But Amendment 1 had a flaw: Implementing it was a job for the target of its ire, the Legislature. And ever since it passed, the Legislature has repeatedly punted on doing what the amendment language says it should do. (Florida Defenders of the Environment sued the Legislature for dropping the ball, but that 2015 lawsuit won't hit the trial phase before next July.)

Last year, once again, the Legislature failed to come up with a dime for buying land under the Florida Forever program. Instead, lawmakers steered the money into salaries for the staff of the state parks and state forest system.

They did this even though the then-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, former state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, was supposed to be championing spending the money on land-buying. Latvala has called himself "the father of Florida Forever" because he backed the bill passed in 1999 that created the program as a successor to another land-buying program, Preservation 2000. Together, the two programs have led the state to purchase more than 2.4 million acres for state parks, forests and other assets.

Last year, when the Legislature again failed to come up with any money for Florida Forever, Latvala told reporters that he was "obviously disappointed." He blamed House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, and then contended it was no big deal because environmental spending on Everglades restoration and other projects made out pretty well.

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

Except now Latvala is gone, resigning from office amid a scandal involving allegations of sexual harassment and possible corruption.

That leaves the job of championing Florida Forever to Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who chairs the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee. Gov. Rick Scott's Department of Environmental Protection is requesting $50 million for Florida Forever this year, but Bradley has filed a bill seeking to double that to $100 million a year.

"I am filing this bill because the Constitution demands, and the overwhelming majority of Floridians who voted for Amendment 1 in 2014 demand, that we protect the natural resources of our state," Bradley said of his bill, SB 370.

The bill has already sailed through its first two committee votes with no opposition, but so far it has no House companion.

Yet Julie Hill-Gabriel, the acting director of Audubon Florida, says she's hopeful that Hurricane Irma will persuade the Legislature at last to revive Florida Forever. All those scenes of flooded neighborhoods, with water standing in the streets for days, should show lawmakers the value of preserving wetlands that can soak up floodwaters before they inundate populated areas.

But Estus Whitfield, an environmental adviser to four governors who helped organized the Florida Conservation Coalition, believes the Legislature may siphon out so much money that there's not going to be enough left to buy land for preservation.

"Special interest political projects have sucked up, long-term, most of what funds Amendment 1 will produce," Whitfield said, "while the vast majority of the state's natural areas go unnoticed."