By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis drew praise as “a true environmental leader” but was also criticized for not putting more money toward the Florida Forever program and failing to adequately prepare the state for climate change as he released a proposed $91.4 billion budget on Monday.
DeSantis received the mixed reviews from environmental groups for his spending plan, which included a previously announced request for $625 million annually for the next three years for efforts directed at the Everglades and other water projects.
The Everglades Foundation applauded DeSantis’ proposed budget, which included $322 million for Everglades restoration, $150 million for water quality improvements, $50 million for restoration of the state’s springs and $22 million to combat the impacts of toxic algae blooms and red tide.
“Governor DeSantis is a true environmental leader who recognizes the importance of preserving our one-of-a-kind Everglades and the important role it plays in our state’s economy, and his budget proposal reflects this,” Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said in a prepared statement.
Meanwhile, Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters, said the budget appears to be “business as usual” and needs “much more bold action to invest in climate solutions.”
“The climate funding is nothing to write home about, and that’s unfortunate because we’re facing a crisis of epic proportions,” Moncrief said.
Moncrief also repeated a call by backers of a 2014 constitutional amendment that set aside money for land and water conservation to restore the once highly praised Florida Forever program to $300 million a year, which the program received annually more than a decade ago.
DeSantis has proposed the land-buying and conservation program receive $100 million, which is also the amount included in a bill (SB 332) by Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando.
DeSantis’ recommendations are considered a starting point for lawmakers who will craft a budget during the 2020 legislative session, which begins Jan. 14.
Much of the environmental money would continue to come from a 2014 voter-approved constitutional amendment that requires 33 percent of revenues from a tax on real-estate documentary stamps to go to land and water conservation. That money goes into what is known as the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.
Since the passage of the amendment, legislators each year have directed at least $200 million to the Everglades, $64 million to a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area, $50 million to natural springs and $5 million to Lake Apopka, projects that have been placed into law.
The proposed budget also seeks $54 million for state parks, $50 million for beach nourishment and $9 million for coral reef protection.
The proposed funding for Florida Forever by Stewart and DeSantis is considered more politically achievable than a larger amount.
“We’re doing $100 million. I think that’s been pretty strong from what had been done previously,” DeSantis said.
“I think that this is something that we can definitely achieve. And I think we can get support in the Legislature,” DeSantis added.
Included in the proposed budget is $6 million for the Department of Environmental Protection’s Resilient Coastlines Program, which is designed to help communities and habitats brace for changes resulting from sea level rise.
DeSantis said he is working with Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz on a matching-grant program with nearly $1 billion on hand for resilience and mitigation. That money is not in his proposed budget.
“You can go down to, like, Miami, and they have to do, I think, 25 percent, but we’ll be able to award some projects to do things to combat flooding and make us more resilient to storms,” DeSantis said. “That’s a pretty significant amount, and that’s a priority for us.”