Standing outside a Miami airboat attraction with some of the state’s top environmentalists and a caged panther named Harley, Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday proposed spending $150 million in his next budget on Everglades restoration and habitat preservation.
Scott also wants lawmakers to designate a quarter of Amendment 1 money — the measure overwhelmingly approved by voters in November for land and water conservation — for restoration work. If the Legislature agrees, the move could raise $5 billion for Everglades projects over the life of the 20-year amendment, an amount that could cover the state’s projected costs.
“We have the opportunity to continue to invest,” Scott said, pointing to a stronger economy. “And this is the right way to invest.”
Environmentalists say the measures, if endorsed by lawmakers, could guarantee the chronically stalled work gets done.
Scott’s announcement represents a big pivot for a pro-growth governor more often criticized for his handling of the state’s fragile resources. Under his tenure, spending on the state’s environmental protection agency steadily declined, along with money for restoration and habitat preservation. Legislators also dismantled the agency that regulated growth in the state at his urging. And on the campaign trail, Scott would not say whether he supported Amendment 1.
But standing alongside Scott at Gator Park on the edge of Everglades National Park Tuesday, environmentalists praised the second-term governor for taking a lead in restoration efforts.
“Future governors and future legislators are going to have to take the Rick Scott plan over the 20-year life of this amendment and implement it,” said Everglades Foundation Chief Executive Officer Eric Eikenberg. “Once it starts, it’s going to be hard to backtrack.”
In nailing down the money for the future, environmentalists say Scott eliminates uncertainty that complicated year-to-year planning on projects that frequently stretch over many years.
“Every year, you never know whether the Legislature is going to appropriate money,” said Audubon Florida executive director Eric Draper. “So last year we had a good year... but it followed several years with not very much spending on the Everglades at all.”
When they campaigned for Amendment 1, organizers frequently pointed to Scott’s failure to fund projects like the Florida Forever Act.
The act was created under former Gov. Jeb Bush to buy land critical to water supplies and habitat for some of the state’s 548 endangered species, including the Florida panther. Last year, a record number of endangered Florida panthers died, most killed by vehicles — a sign the wide-ranging cats were running out of room. The act was supposed to provide $300 million a year, on top of $100 million supplied annually from other trusts.
But when the economy tanked in 2008, legislators and Scott began “sweeping” the trust funds and diverting money to other causes, Draper said at the time. Amendment backers said Scott cut spending on environmental land by 95 percent in his first term.
On Tuesday, Scott touted an $880 million settlement his administration negotiated in a lawsuit over water quality, ending decades of litigation. He also budgeted $120 million last year for Everglades projects and while campaigning last year, vowed to spend $1 billion over 10 years. Tuesday’s announcement, he said, will build on that by making a “long-term commitment” to finish restoring the Kissimmee River, construct reservoirs for the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, move water to the parched central Everglades and provide land critically needed for water storage.
In March, lawmakers will begin hammering out how to spend Amendment 1 money. The amendment sets aside a third of taxes collected on real estate transactions and by some estimates could raise as much as $22 billion over 20 years. Already there are suggestions to use the money for water and sewer infrastructure or other work that environmentalists say was not intended under the amendment. Scott’s announcement Tuesday should be a clear signal that the money can only be used for restoration and conservation, environmentalists said.
“He’s setting the agenda,” Draper said.