Environmentalists: Gov. DeSantis’ budget falls short of pent-up needs

Development and climate change make the environment a sensitive issue in Florida, seen here from space at night. Photo by NASA Earth Observatory

Representing a new theme song for environmental issues in Florida, observers say Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is doing better than his predecessors but is not doing enough to overcome decades of degradation of sensitive lands and water quality.

Commenting on the budget plan DeSantis released Monday, critics said his proposed funding of $2 billion for the Department of Environmental Protection — an increase of $234 million — is an improvement over the previous administration but called on lawmakers to do much more now that Republican lawmakers belatedly acknowledge climate change and its heavy toll in Florida.

Also Monday, 123 environmental groups and businesses from around the state collectively wrote to DeSantis and leaders in the House and Senate to dramatically strengthen environmental protection programs.

“There is no time to lose. …  If we do not act to save Florida’senvironmentally sensitive lands from development now, we will lose the opportunity forever,” says the letter, signed by chapters of Audubon, Riverkeepers, League of Women Voters, and many others.

DeSantis proposes $322 million for Everglades restoration projects; $222 million for targeted water-quality programs to fight blue-green algae takeovers, red tide, and pollution by septic tanks and wastewater runoff; $50 million to improve water quality in Florida’s natural springs; and $40 million in alternative water supply grants.

The plan includes $50 million in beach renourishment funding, $150 million for cleanup of contaminated sites, and $100 million for the Florida Forever program to preserve sensitive lands.

Florida’s Sierra Club says it’s not enough, considering that Florida’s 2014 constitutional amendment earmarking 33 percent of doc-stamp revenue to “acquire and restore Florida conservation and recreation lands” generates far more money for that purpose than the $100 million DeSantis proposes for Florida Forever. Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat, is sponsoring legislation to mandate $100 million annually as an absolute minimum. Florida Forever is currently funded at $33 million.

“This amount has to be measured against the $785.5 million of Amendment 1 money that will be available after debt service is paid,” Sierra Club wrote in a statement, citing an August report by the state Office of Economic and Demographic Research estimating the revenue for 2020-21. “All of it should be spent on the acquisition, improvement, restoration, and management of conservation and recreation lands.”

Sierra Club and other groups say lawmakers continue to “raid” Amendment 1 funds contrary to the intentions of Florida voters who adopted it by a large margin.

Florida Forever has been just one bone of contention.

“The governor’s proposal funds Florida Forever, the state’s primary land conservation program, at $100 million. While this is an important commitment to conservation, it’s far below the level needed to make up for years of dismal environmental protection funding at the hands of state lawmakers,” the nonpartisan Florida Policy Institute said in a statement.

Likewise, Friends of the Everglades wants lawmakers to dedicate dramatically more funding to the environment, which has enormous business value atop its intrinisic worth.

“We have an economy based on the environment that generates about $100 billion for the state annually and a $91 billion annual budget, yet we only spend around $2.3 billion on the environment each year.  That number should easily be double or triple if we want to turn around Florida’s environmental mismanagement,” said the organization’s executive director, Alex Gillen.

Florida State Parks Foundation officers thanked the governor for recommending $54 million for parks, an increase of $18.5 million over current funding. Like Gillen, Foundation CEO Julia Gill Woodward cited the multiple values of a healthy, beautiful environment.

“When you compare the $55 million that has been requested with the $2.6 billion in economic impact that the state parks generated last year, drawing over 30 million visitors, it is hard to think of any other example that is a better return on the investment,” Woodward said.