Bruce Ritchie: Gov. Scott is circumventing funding formula for conservation

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When Gov. Rick Scott last year announced Florida was suing Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court over water use, he selected a scenic view along Apalachicola Bay that had been purchased with state and local dollars.

The Apalachicola Riverfront Park encourages tourism by providing a place where busy seafood festivals are held and where visitors can take photographs of shrimp boats at sunset.

The park was purchased under the state???s Florida Communities Trust program in phases in 1995 and 1998. The program has provided matching grants to communities to help establish 577 local and regional parks around the state since 1989.

But the program hasn???t received any money from the Florida Legislature since 2011.

And it???s not just because of the lack of money for land acquisition, which has been well documented by me and other journalists.

Florida Forever was the nation???s largest land-buying program from 1990 until 2008 when it received $300 million a year. But it has received less than 5 percent of its historic funding since 2009.

But Florida Communities Trust hasn???t received any money since 2011 because Scott and the Legislature have circumvented a funding distribution formula that was revised and approved by the Legislature in 2008.

That formula, passed in Senate Bill 542, provided that Florida Communities Trust receive 21 percent of money appropriated for the Florida Forever land-buying program.

However, in his last two budget proposals, Scott requested that money for conservation lands be prioritized toward payments to landowners to conserve land, to partnership projects, military base buffers, springs and other water resources protection.

There???s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But the formula, in addition to providing for Florida Communities Trust, would have provided money for those purchases Scott wanted as well as others by water management districts, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission and the Florida Forest Service.

In July, Scott???s campaign released an environmental spending plan that promises the governor will request $150 million a year for ???agricultural landscapes, conservation lands and local parks.???

The plan was short on specifics. Does it mean the Florida Forever formula will be used again? Does it mean Florida Communities Trust will again receive funding?

And why did the governor circumvent the formula in the first place?

I asked the governor???s press office and his re-election campaign spokesman these questions and never received answers.

???We will have more details when the governor announces his budget recommendations in January,??? Press Secretary John Tupps said last week.

Environmental groups now are backing Amendment 1 to the Florida Constitution, which would provide more than $10 billion over 20 years for conservation land acquisition, land management and restoration.

Supporters hope the amendment will provide money for the full range of Florida Forever programs, including Florida Communities Trust. Will Abberger, campaign chairman for Amendment 1, said the Florida Communities Trust largely has been forgotten.

???It???s sort of a vicious cycle,??? he said. ???There is no funding, so there are no projects. There is no awareness (among legislators). They are not hearing from their constituents about these wonderful parks the state is helping fund. The knowledge of the success of the (Florida Communities Trust) program unfortunately is not there.???

The next time the Legislature appropriates money for land acquisition, it should follow the formula that it approved or it should vote to change it.

And the next time Scott goes to a protected site to campaign for environmental protection, I hope to ask him why he has circumvented the formula in state law used to buy some of those lands.

He doesn???t have to wait until January to answer that question.

Bruce Ritchie is an independent journalist covering environment and growth management issues in Tallahassee. He also is editor of Floridaenvironments.com. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Author: Bruce Ritchie

Bruce Ritchie is a reporter covering environment, growth management and energy in Tallahassee and is editor of Floridaenvironments.com. He has covered environmental issues in Florida since 1993 previously for the Gainesville Sun, the Tallahassee Democrat and the Florida Current. He has written extensively about the fight over water among Alabama, Florida and Georgia and about pollution threats to Florida???s groundwater and springs. Bruce also covered state government in Alabama for United Press International and the Montgomery Advertiser. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of South Carolina and a master’s degree in mass communication from the University of Florida. Follow him on Twitter @bruceritchie or contact him at bruceBritchie@gmail.com or at 850-385-1774.

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