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Sunday, Oct 26, 2014
Columnists

Dockery: Selling ‘surplus’ sensitive state lands a harebrained idea

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Call me a cynic, but the plan to sell state-owned conservation lands in order to buy “better” conservation lands was, at best, an intellectually dishonest way to brag about funding environmental programs without actually funding them. At worst, it was a deviously flawed plan designed to fail.

Under four governors, Bob Martinez, Lawton Chiles, Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, environmental land acquisition programs were developed, implemented, adequately funded and improved.

The first program, Preservation 2000, was a visionary effort to preserve the environmental lands that make Florida the beautiful and special place that attracts millions of people to our state. The voluntary 10-year land acquisition program was hugely popular and successful.

As it neared the end of its run, I was given the opportunity to work with my colleagues in the Florida Legislature and then-Gov. Jeb Bush to improve and continue the acquisition program. Bringing all interested parties together, we updated the goals of the program to include a greater focus on water resources, more funding for management of the lands we had purchased, and a greater emphasis on public access for our citizens and visitors to enjoy. We renamed the program Florida Forever to more accurately reflect our goal as we moved into the future.

The program was funded at or near its intended level of $300 million a year, and environmentally sensitive, unique or resource-rich lands were identified for purchase. In order to ensure that taxpayers’ financial interests were protected, a system was put in place to safeguard against back-room deals for the politically connected.

Although the funding came from a combination of general revenue, trust funds and bond proceeds, it was anticipated that documentary stamp revenue would be used to fund the program, whether in cash or to service the debt incurred when bonds were issued.

Documentary stamp revenue is generated from real estate transactions and provides a good nexus between development and environmental preservation.

Many environmentally friendly Floridians worried about the program’s prospects when Jeb Bush, a developer, became governor. To their surprise and delight, Jeb was an enthusiastic supporter of its continuation and a steady proponent of its funding.

Of course, the budget was strong then, and Bush preferred to use cash rather than issue more debt. In fact, as the real estate market remained remarkably hot, doc stamp revenues exceeded what was necessary to fund Florida Forever.

The first budget under Gov. Charlie Crist also brought full funding of Florida Forever. But when state revenues plummeted from $72 billion to $66 billion in 2008, the funding evaporated as expected. The environmental community feared the limited revenue would be hard to come by and was willing to make the same sacrifices as everyone else until the economy improved.

But with an $8 billion jump in state revenues since then, it’s difficult to understand why the $300 million-a-year program has received little or no funding.

In 2013, with a $74.5 billion budget, Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature announced their renewed interest in funding Florida Forever.

The scheme? Appropriate $20 million (1/15th of the $300 million level intended) and allow an additional $50 million to be used if and when lands already in state ownership could be identified as surplus and sold.

Many of us were underwhelmed by their “generosity” and commitment. What could possibly go wrong with that plan?

While Scott and the Legislature touted funding Florida Forever at $70 million, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) began its questionable process of identifying these potential “unneeded” lands for surplus.

By some newspaper accounts, the department originally listed 169 potential sites totaling 5,300 acres. After much public outcry, the list is down to 77 parcels totaling 3,405 acres and is still not finalized.

To date:

♦  No money has been raised from land sales.

♦  Controversy surrounds the largest parcels left that lie in the Green Swamp, which is headwaters to four Florida rivers.

♦  Two top DEP state land officials have resigned, including a highly respected nine-year veteran.

At least one legislator has correctly called the effort a disaster. Not only has the execution been incredibly botched, the plan itself was a harebrained idea intended to appear magnanimous while deviously forcing advocates to divert their attention from acquiring additional sensitive lands to protecting existing sensitive lands from being sold.

As we head into the next legislative session, Gov. Scott and the Legislature should abandon this ill-conceived notion and fully fund Florida Forever as originally intended. With a projected record-high budget, there’s no excuse not to.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.

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