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Bruce Ritchie: Is House giving Florida Forever $205 million? Nope

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Words matter, or they should – at least for journalists.

Not necessarily for politicians.

Case in point: the Florida House leadership saying that it has $205 million in the proposed 2015-16 state budget for Florida Forever, the state’s land-buying program.

Nope, not true.

In fact, the House budget proposal doesn’t include a single dollar for Florida Forever, in my opinion, although it seems to have some for land acquisition.

How much? We can’t be sure.

Florida Forever actually is a formula in state law that provides funding for 10 conservation programs. Florida Forever follows a scientific rationale for identifying and protecting natural areas while also including purchases for city parks and payments to rural landowners not to develop.

Florida had the largest land-buying program in the nation from 1990 until 2008, when its funding was slashed.

And even the reduced amount since 2009 came with strings attached.

Money was directed to payments for landowners and military base buffers while other programs, such as Florida Communities Trust for city parks, were left behind.

Voters responded in November by passing Amendment 1, which provides an estimated $741.2 million for water and land conservation in the 2015-16 state budget.

State Rep. Ben Albritton, chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, said again last week that the House is putting $205 million toward Florida Forever.

Albritton, a Republican from Wauchula, is a citrus farmer and very nice guy – but that’s just not true.

First, the money is being bonded, which means only $20.5 million of the $741.2 million in revenue under Amendment 1 is going where Albritton says it’s going.

Second, of the $205 million being bonded, $100 million is going toward “water resources development projects” at the water management districts.

According to the budget language, those projects are intended to “achieve the goal of ensuring that sufficient quantities of water are available to meet current and future needs of natural systems and the citizens of the state.”

Does that sound like conservation land-buying? Nope.

Does it sound like the water projects that industry groups and lobbyists are wanting? Yep.

The House says at least half will go toward land-buying, but you can bet it won’t be for places you can take your family.

Then there’s $50 million intended for springs. The House says all of it could be spent on land acquisition but that depends on whatever plan eventually is submitted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

For the past two years, DEP has used springs money to help utilities upgrade wastewater treatment or move their wastewater disposal sites away from springs.

That sounds like a good thing for springs – or at least a small start. But it doesn’t sound like land acquisition.

Even the $20 million for Kissimmee River restoration, the $25 million for conservation easements and another $10 million for military base buffers and other land purchases are not true Florida Forever.

That’s because the money is not going into the distribution formula. Again, that money is being directed toward specific projects and the other Florida Forever programs are being left behind.

The Senate has proposed only $2 million in revenue for Florida Forever and $20 million for Kissimmee River restoration.

After asking earlier this month “how much is enough” conservation land, state Sen. Alan Hays, the Senate budget writer for environmental spending, last week said that amount was a “placeholder.”

He’s taken a lot of heat from environmentalists for asking that question, and for not providing more for Florida Forever.

But at least the Senate is being accurate in saying where the money is going to go – and where it’s not.

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment and growth management issues in Tallahassee for Floridapolitics.com. He also is editor of Floridaenvironments.com.

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