The ink had barely dried on Florida’s $91.1 billion state budget this weekend when the Department of Environmental Protection posted an advertisement for a newly funded position to do what months earlier would have been unthinkable: Prepare the state for climate change.
Under the previous administration, the government presiding over a peninsula with more to lose to mother nature than any other U.S. state was largely uninterested in environmentalism. Under former governor Rick Scott, regulators were banned from using the phrase “global warming,” and conservation efforts were so skimpy that voters passed a constitutional amendment forcing the state to set aside millions for land acquisition.
But following a summer in which toxic algae blooms fouled waterways along Republican strongholds, Scott’s conservative successor, Ron DeSantis, has become the state’s most prominent advocate for environmental restoration. After compiling a voting record in Congress assailed by environmental advocates, he campaigned on a green agenda, and to the pleasant surprise of environmentalists pushed in his first days in office for an additional $1 billion in Everglades funding.
And now that he finally has dollars to spend on his priorities, DeSantis will soon have a chance for the first time to turn them into policy — a task that will define whether he really is the new face of Republican conservatism and the first modern-era green governor in the Sunshine State.
“We have much more to do,” DeSantis, calling his efforts so far “a really good first step,” said Tuesday in Miami.
With the Legislature having approved the state’s budget Saturday — awarding DeSantis nearly $60 million more than the $625 million he requested for environmental restoration and water resource management — the governor visited the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science on Virginia Key to take a victory lap. In a press conference, he surrounded himself with conservation advocates who celebrated an “unprecedented environmental budget.”
Erik Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, said DeSantis’ first four months in office have “been a combination of Christmas, the Super Bowl and [winning] the lottery, combined” for environmentalists. Doug Gaston, a policy analyst for Audubon Florida, called the governor’s efforts Florida’s first “meaningful steps in the right direction.”
And there are signs that DeSantis will walk the walk.
For all the governor’s reluctance to acknowledge man-made climate change on the campaign trail, the new search for a chief resiliency officer inherently recognizes the threat that climate change poses to the state’s future. His administration has opposed an oil drilling permit on the edge of the Everglades in Broward County. DeSantis is also the first governor in decades to pick a fight with Big Sugar, blasting them on the stump as the industry — one of Florida’s biggest sources of campaign cash — supported his Republican primary opponent.
DeSantis went so far as to push out the entire board of the South Florida Water Management District after they ignored his request to stave off a vote and quickly renewed a Florida Cystals lease for land targeted for an Everglades restoration reservoir. And on Thursday, the SFWMD Board is scheduled to adopt new goals, replacing a moderate plan “to manage and protect water resources of the region by balancing and improving flood control” with a mission to “safeguard South Florida’s water resources and ecosystems, protect our communities from flooding, and meet the region’s water needs while connecting with the public and stakeholders.’’
“There is certainly a focus now on restoration of the Everglades and water protection,” said board vice-chairman Scott Wagner.
For his efforts, DeSantis appears to have built up a reservoir of good will. Following a bruising campaign against Andrew Gillum — who often remarked on the campaign trail that if he were elected Florida would “have a governor who believes in science” — polls have shown that DeSantis is the state’s most popular statewide politician.
But as a Republican lawmaker close to climate-denying President Donald Trump, he’s also got a difficult balancing act.
While DeSantis won’t block state government from acknowledging the threat of climate change, he’s shown little interest in tackling carbon emissions. He backed a failed fracking-ban bill this session criticized by environmentalists as toothless, and ridiculed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal Tuesday as a “radical” policy that “wouldn’t do very much for the environment, anyway.”
“When you’ve dealt with eight years of Rick Scott and a horrible environmental record, he doesn’t have to do much to make us feel good. So we have nowhere to go but up,” said state Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami. “My suggestion to everyone is, don’t just look at the pretty cover of the car. Make sure you look under the hood. We’re doing so many things that are clearly going backwards.”
-- David Smiley and Adriana Brasileiro wrote this story.