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Environmentalists Say Scott Budget Doesn't Go Far Enough

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TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – Gov. Rick Scott is proposing more money for land preservation next year, but environmentalists say the levels fall short of what voters wanted in passing a 2014 constitutional amendment.

As part of his proposed $79.3 billion budget introduced Monday, Scott is asking for $62.8 million for the land-acquisition program Florida Forever, $188 million for work to improve the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee and another $50 million to help maintain the state's natural springs.

Scott called his proposal a "historic investment" as all the numbers top the funding for the current year.

Scott is also asking the Legislature to provide $10 million for the Florida Communities Trust Program, which provides matching grants to local communities for land buying.

Environmentalists praised Scott for his attention to the Everglades and his effort to fund the communities trust.

But they also contend the overall funding should be higher in light of the constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2014 and controversial spending decisions made by the Legislature this year. Those decisions, which included using money to cover agency operations, are the focus of two lawsuits.

"We're going to work with him and the Legislature to try to get those numbers up," said Will Abberger, campaign manager for Florida's Water and Land Legacy, the group behind the 2014 measure known as Amendment 1.

The Nature Conservancy lobbyist Janet Bowman said she will also work to include funding for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, which has been championed and used in the past by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. The program buys conservation easements over agricultural land.

The conservancy also will seek to "increase funding for the purchase of strategically important critical natural lands under the Florida Forever program; for example, the protection of critical habitat corridors for Florida panthers that are highly ranked on the Florida Forever list," Bowman added.

The land-preservation money --- along with additional spending on water-supply projects and the maintenance of state parks, beaches and even a few coastal projects aimed at addressing "sea level rise" --- would be funded under Amendment 1, which requires for 20 years that 33 percent of an existing tax on real-estate documentary-stamps go for land and water maintenance and acquisition across Florida.

Amendment 1 is expected to generate $905 million during the fiscal year that starts July 1, according to the governor's office. The voter-backed measure was projected to generate $740 million in the current fiscal year.

Legislators, when piecing together the current year's land-acquisition funding, argued there is already an overabundance of Florida land in government ownership.

Scott's funding proposals represent a $45 million increase for the Everglades, an $11.5 million boost to natural springs and nearly $50 million more for Florida Forever.

Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said in a release the money to complete restoration projects "is something desperately needed."

"Whether it's Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, or Florida Bay, the solution to these water crises is completed Everglades projects," Eikenberg said in a prepared statement.

Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper said he had hoped Scott would maintain a $150 million funding request for Florida Forever the governor made a year ago.

"The economy is booming. People are moving to Florida. Florida is becoming more crowded all the time. So why can't we invest more money into protecting land?" Draper said. "This is not an adequate budget for the environment."

The Legislature-approved funding for the current year, particularly the use of $237 million to offset state agency operating costs, salaries and buying motor vehicles, has spurred two lawsuits.

Asked about Scott's funding proposals for next year, Florida Wildlife Federation President Manley Fuller said in an email that issue may not be settled until after the 2016 legislative session gets underway in January.

"The judicial timelines and the legislative calendar are not on the same schedule so we could be well into the next session or even later before the courts make their final rulings on this matter," Fuller said.

The Florida Wildlife Federation, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida and the Sierra Club want a Leon County circuit judge to require state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater to transfer $237 million from the General Revenue Fund to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, which is used to carry out Amendment 1, and to declare exactly what lawmakers can and can't do with the Amendment 1 money.

Meanwhile, the Florida Defenders of the Environment wants a Leon County circuit judge to block the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of State, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission from spending the dollars in the current fiscal year.

Thomas Hawkins, executive director for the Florida Defenders, said in an email on Monday that "all Amendment 1 money should be used to acquire and restore conservation lands."

"Florida Defenders has made a legal challenge to the improper spending in the last budget and will closely examine additional action if future budgets similarly misspend taxpayers' dollars," Hawkins said in his email.

The News Service of Florida's Jim Turner contributed to this report.

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