TALLAHASSEE — State Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein on Wednesday defended Gov. Ron DeSantis for not asking to issue bonds for the Florida Forever land-conservation program, as the financing method has been proposed to cover Everglades work and a new program to fight rising sea levels.
Valenstein told members of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee he’s been directed to show the value in Florida Forever, with DeSantis proposing next year to spend $50 million on the program — down from $100 million during the current fiscal year.
“We believe $50 million will allow us to continue a robust land-acquisition program,” Valenstein said. “The thing we focus on the most at the agency is bringing in good acquisitions, ones that tell the reason why we should have an acquisition program and the ones that add to the value of the green infrastructure we already have.”
After the meeting, Valenstein said the governor has “repeatedly had us bring forward amazing projects to the Cabinet. He voted for those projects and expects us to continue to bring amazing projects.” DeSantis and the Cabinet must sign off on land purchases.
Pointing to an anticipated increased demand on the state’s water supply, Rep. Rick Roth, R-West Palm Beach, said he was “disappointed” in the way the governor wants to fund Florida Forever.
“We’ve spent over 25 years working on Everglades restoration. This is a long-term project. The (fight against) blue-green algae and water quality and all that,” said Roth, a member of the subcommittee. “I would like to just encourage the governor’s office to think more about bonding for Florida Forever so that we can protect our water resources as we have this influx of people.”
While House leaders in the past have opposed bonding, which creates long-term debt, Roth added, “I’m hoping if we get to that point, that y’all will be supportive of bonding for Forever Florida.”
DeSantis in late January proposed a $96.6 billion budget for the fiscal year that will begin July 1. Lawmakers will consider the proposal as they draw up a final budget during the legislative session that starts March 2.
As part of DeSantis’ plan, he proposed spending $25 million next year, with the amount increasing in the following years, for a Resilient Florida program. The money would be used to finance bonds, with the goal of providing $1 billion over four years to state and local agencies to address coastal flooding and other climate-change impacts across the state.
DeSantis also again asked for $625 million for Everglades restoration efforts and other water-related projects. Part of the Everglades work would rely on bonding.
Environmental groups backed a 2014 voter-approved constitutional amendment that dedicates a portion of a real-estate documentary tax for land preservation. They had hoped DeSantis would seek to maintain Florida Forever funding at $100 million.
The use of Florida Forever money has been on the increase the past few years, if not the amount of land being acquired.
With more than four months remaining in the current fiscal year, the state has completed or is finishing $76 million in Florida Forever acquisitions that total 24,000 acres. Last fiscal year, the state spent $61 million to acquire 27,000 acres.
“I think we’re firing on all cylinders,” Valenstein said.
“You know, going back about five years ago, (spending was) at $27 million dollars, the next $25 (million), then $19 (million), then we cranked up to $61 (million.) This year, we’re already at $76 (million). So, you can tell that we’re reaching speed,” Valenstein said. “But I think with the revenue we already have, plus an additional appropriation from the Legislature, it’s going to allow us to bring in some really exciting projects and then have that conversation about what’s the right spot. Did we need more funding? What’s that right level? But we will also be able to maintain really good land acquisitions with this funding level.”
Among the projects DeSantis and the Cabinet have signed off on since October are a $43 million deal for a 17,088-acre tract in Franklin and Wakulla counties that includes a restrictive easement for the U.S. Air Force and a $14.625 million deal for 5,804 acres in Hendry County, south of Lake Okeechobee. The Hendry County property joins 33,690 acres of an area called Devil’s Garden, which was already in state hands or in the process of being purchased from agribusiness company Alico, Inc.
The Florida Forever program once drew $300 million a year in funding but was little used in the early years of former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, while the state was coming out of the recession from 2008 and 2009.
As the economy recovered and without renewed Florida Forever funding from the Legislature, Scott and the Cabinet opted more often to use a preservation method — known as acquiring conservation easements — preferred by then-Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. Under conservation easements, land is protected from development, but farmers and ranchers typically can continue to use the property.