1. Opinion

Editorial: DeSantis sends strong message on environment

Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to increase spending on restoring the Florida Everglades. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to increase spending on restoring the Florida Everglades. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
Published Mar. 1, 2019

As the Florida Legislature opens its annual session this week, the ambitious environmental proposals by Gov. Ron DeSantis serve two vital purposes. They call for spending significant new money on Florida's costliest environmental priorities, from restoring the Everglades to cleaning up the state's natural springs. They also signal the new governor's intent to stabilize environmental funding over the longer term, which would help keep restoration projects on-course, on-time and more affordable. This refreshing approach is a stark change of direction from the last governor, and state lawmakers should embrace it.

The $91 billion state budget proposed by DeSantis includes nearly $1.9 billion for environmental protection, some $90 million more over the current year. About $625 million would go for water protection efforts, including about half - or $360 million, a record - that would go to Everglades projects. The money would help speed completion of a 17,000-acre reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that is aimed at reducing pollutants discharged into coastal estuaries. DeSantis included $100 million for Florida Forever, the state's land-buying program, $100 million for septic cleanup and other wastewater projects and $50 million for springs. He also proposed nearly $25 million and a new statewide task force to confront the algae outbreak, a multi-pronged approach that includes cleanup and longer-term strategies to reduce nutrient buildups in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and other key water bodies.

These are big, strategic investments in protecting water quality, public health and business and property values. While state lawmakers set aside $101 million for Florida Forever last year - an election year, this was not a priority during the eight years under former Republican Gov. Rick Scott. For decades, the state spent about $275 million annually on Florida Forever and its predecessor. But lawmakers did not appropriate funds for the program in fiscal years 2011-12, 2013-14 or 2017-18. DeSantis would spend nearly $100 million more on Everglades projects in the coming year compared to the current level. And his proposed budget is on track to meet the promise he made to spend $2.5 billion on water quality projects over the next four years, a $1 billion increase from past spending.

The real test will be in how the DeSantis administration follows its funding commitments with real plans for action. New spending for water quality monitoring, for example, must set the stage for tougher pollution standards and water quality improvements. Spending millions to oversee basin protection plans means nothing if the plans themselves are weak, ineffective and not enforced. And while springs protection is essential, the springs were already getting $50 million, a figure that experts have said falls woefully short of preserving this drinking water supply.

Still, the new governor has laid out compelling priorities, put a dollar figure to them and set a spending bar that he hopes to meet by the end of his first four-year term. In that sense, DeSantis has signaled he intends to bring a new level of certainty to environmental funding. These commitments would help Florida leverage matching federal dollars and help put Everglades restoration on a more timely track.

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Starting this week, it's up to the Florida Legislature to follow through.