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Simpson proposes added $331M for Florida agriculture as he eyes commissioner job

Under the proposal, the money couldn’t be spent until after the 2022 election.
Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson is running to be Florida's agriculture commissioner.
Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson is running to be Florida's agriculture commissioner. [ REBECCA BLACKWELL | AP ]
Published Mar. 2|Updated Mar. 2

TALLAHASSEE — Republican Senate President Wilton Simpson wants to be the next Florida agriculture commissioner, and he is using his power over the $105 billion state budget to give the agency a gift: $331 million in new spending.

But it also comes with a catch: It can’t be spent until after the election. The money — $300 million for land acquisition, plus aerial drones, agriculture promotion and new jobs — must be held in reserve and not used by Nikki Fried, the current agriculture commissioner who is a Democrat running for governor.

Under the Senate budget, the money would be released on Jan. 1, 2023, halfway through the fiscal year and the month the next commissioner takes office.

The massive investment would expand the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, run by the Department of Agriculture, and bring the program from one that was not funded at all this year to one of the largest land-buying programs in the state.

The plan would shift the Rural and Family Lands Program from providing conservation easements to being able to buy land from farmers outright. Conservation easements are established by the state to compensate a farmer for keeping land in its natural state instead of developing it.

Simpson, an egg farmer from Trilby, is running for agriculture commissioner in November and has no substantial opposition.

Under Florida legislative rules, the Senate president and House speaker wield enormous control over the budget, appointing the chair of the budget committee and the committee members. They can direct what line items get funding and are given the unique ability to create legislation that is known as a budget conforming bill, which is used to shape policy for budget appropriations.

The $300 million land program was attached to SB 2508, a controversial budget conforming bill the Senate developed that Simpson told reporters was needed to achieve what he said were important land and water conservation goals but that water advocates said gave sugar farmers an unfair advantage. There is no companion legislation in the House.

Related: After Trump endorsement, Wilton Simpson files to run for Florida agriculture commissioner

Completing wildlife corridor

Sen. Ben Albritton, a Republican citrus farmer from Bartow and sponsor of the bill, explained the change during the Senate’s budget debate on Feb. 17. He said it was needed to help the state build a protected wildlife corridor to preserve habitat as development encroaches.

Simpson spokeswoman Katie Betta would not answer why it was important to time the funding to take effect Jan. 1, 2023.

“Last year, the budget had $400 million for the Florida Forever Program at (the Department of Environmental Protection) with $300 million focused on the wildlife corridor,” she said. “Most of that has not been spent yet, as these purchases can take some time.”

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Fried’s office said it welcomes the additional funding but would like it to be available at the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1, to avoid interruptions in the programs.

“Our main focus remains securing funding for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program to continue its critical work,” said Caroline Stonecipher, Fried’s spokesperson. Because the program has been “severely underfunded by the state in the past three years,” the program has lost the opportunity to receive matching funds.

The budget proposal also includes a $15 million aerial drone program “for wildfire surveillance,” $15 million “to assist in the department’s mission for promotion of agriculture products,” and seven new positions totaling $757,039 in salary.

The goal of the land-buying program is to purchase land from farmers at fair market value “as determined by the department, so long as the public’s interest is reasonably protected” to help complete the state’s wildlife corridor. The corridor is a network of habitat connections that stretch for nearly 18 million acres across the state. Only 54 percent of it is currently protected from development.

Related: Florida Senate reverses plan to give sugar industry water advantage

Duplicating land-buying program by DEP

Lindsay Cross, the water and land policy director for Florida Conservation Voters, said the Senate’s proposal expands and duplicates an existing Florida Forever land-buying program managed by the Department of Environmental Protection. Although the money is needed, she said, it gives money to the Department of Agriculture with none of the restrictions and ecological guidelines traditionally in place for land acquisition.

“We’re not saying that it’s necessarily a wrong thing for Rural and Family Lands to purchase land, but there are no guardrails in there,” she said.

She noted that Senate leaders used a procedural move to add the program to the budget with only one public hearing and limited opportunity for amendments.

“There has been no discussion about why this is necessary, and whether the program will be modernized or restructured to make sure this is the right investment for the taxpayers and not just the landowners,” she said.

Fried is running for the Democratic nomination for governor to oppose Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. Cross said the fact that Simpson chose to have these changes take effect only after Fried is out of office raises questions.

“If there is no change in the structure of the program, you may be spending a lot of taxpayer dollars to protect (agricultural) land which may or may not be the highest priorities in terms of how it benefits the state or the needs of wildlife or water supply,” she said.

The Senate budget was approved on a unanimous vote. It is now up to the House, which includes none of the $331 million in its budget, to decide how much to accept or reject. On Tuesday, Florida legislators began meeting in conference committee to resolve the differences between the House and Senate budgets, including a $400 million difference in the agriculture budget. The legislative session is scheduled to end on March 11.

The change to the Rural and Family Lands program may not just impact the Department of Agriculture, it “has the potential to impact” the structure of the Florida Forever program run by the Department of Environmental Protection, which depends on matching local and state funds to operate, said Dee Ann Miller, Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson.

Stonecipher said the agriculture department has “worked hard to stretch the state and partner funding as far as it can over the years, but without further state funding,” the program will run out of money “within the calendar year.”

“While we’re pleased that the Senate has proposed increased funding for critical land protection easements, we hope the funds will be made available immediately so we can continue the mission of the program seamlessly,” Stonecipher said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to add context about the Senate president’s role in the budgeting process, that Sen. Simpson is in the agriculture business and that he has no substantive opposition at this point in his seeking the office of commissioner of agriculture in the November election.

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