Environment

Is Ron DeSantis really Florida’s green governor? We’re about to find out.

Governor DeSantis rallies for spending on the environment

Flanked by State government and private environmental stakeholders Governor Ron Desantis, center, holds his press conference at UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science regarding funding for his administration environmental initiatives.
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Flanked by State government and private environmental stakeholders Governor Ron Desantis, center, holds his press conference at UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science regarding funding for his administration environmental initiatives.

The ink had barely dried on Florida’s $91.1 billion state budget this weekend when the Department of Environmental Protection posted an advertisement for a newly funded position to do what months earlier would have been unthinkable: Prepare the state for climate change.

Under the previous administration, the government presiding over a peninsula with more to lose to Mother Nature than any other U.S. state was largely uninterested in environmentalism. Under former Gov. Rick Scott, regulators were banned from using the phrase “global warming,” and conservation efforts were so skimpy that voters passed a constitutional amendment forcing the state to set aside millions for land acquisition.

But following a summer in which toxic algae blooms fouled waterways along Republican strongholds, the state invested in a $1.4 billion Everglades reservoir, Scott’s conservative successor, Ron DeSantis, has become the state’s most prominent advocate for environmental restoration. After compiling a voting record in Congress assailed by environmental advocates, he campaigned on a green agenda, and to the pleasant surprise of environmentalists pushed in his first days in office for an additional $1 billion in Everglades funding.

And now that he finally has dollars to spend on his priorities, DeSantis will soon have a chance for the first time to turn them into policy — a task that will define whether he really is the new face of Republican conservatism and the first modern-era green governor in the Sunshine State.

“We have much more to do,” DeSantis said Tuesday in Miami. He called his administration’s efforts so far “a really good first step.”

With the Legislature having approved the state’s budget Saturday — awarding DeSantis nearly $60 million more than the $625 million he requested for environmental restoration and water resource management — the governor visited the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science on Virginia Key to take a victory lap. In a press conference, he surrounded himself with conservation advocates who celebrated an “unprecedented environmental budget.”

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Flanked by state government and private environmental stakeholders, Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a press conference at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science regarding funding for his environmental initiatives on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

Erik Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, said DeSantis’ first four months in office have “been a combination of Christmas, the Super Bowl and [winning] the lottery, combined” for environmentalists. Doug Gaston, a policy analyst for Audubon Florida, called the governor’s efforts Florida’s first “meaningful steps in the right direction.”

And there are signs that DeSantis will walk the walk.

For all the governor’s reluctance to acknowledge man-made climate change on the campaign trail, the new search for a chief resiliency officer inherently recognizes the threat that climate change poses to the state’s future. His administration has opposed an oil drilling permit on the edge of the Everglades in Broward County. DeSantis is also the first governor in years to pick a public fight with Big Sugar, blasting them on the stump as the industry — one of Florida’s biggest sources of campaign cash — supported his Republican primary opponent.

DeSantis went so far as to push out the entire board of the South Florida Water Management District after it ignored his request to stave off a vote and quickly renewed a Florida Crystals lease for land targeted for an Everglades restoration reservoir. And on Thursday, the SFWMD Board is scheduled to adopt new goals, replacing a moderate plan “to manage and protect water resources of the region by balancing and improving flood control” with a mission to “safeguard South Florida’s water resources and ecosystems, protect our communities from flooding, and meet the region’s water needs while connecting with the public and stakeholders.’’

“There is certainly a focus now on restoration of the Everglades and water protection,” said board vice chairman Scott Wagner.

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Algae on Lake Okeechobee’s east shore surrounds boats in a harbor, July 11, 2018. An algae bloom has residents and government officials concerned after the 2016 algae bloom that impacted the environment and economies in Central Florida. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

For his efforts, DeSantis appears to have built up a reservoir of good will. Following a bruising campaign against Andrew Gillum — who often remarked on the campaign trail that if he were elected, Florida would “have a governor who believes in science” — polls have shown that DeSantis is the state’s most popular statewide politician.

But as a Republican lawmaker close to climate-denying President Donald Trump, he’s also got a difficult balancing act.

While DeSantis won’t block state government from acknowledging the threat of climate change, he’s shown little interest in tackling carbon emissions. He backed a failed fracking ban bill this session criticized by environmentalists as toothless, and ridiculed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal Tuesday as a “radical” policy that “wouldn’t do very much for the environment, anyway.”

“When you’ve dealt with eight years of Rick Scott and a horrible environmental record, he doesn’t have to do much to make us feel good. So we have nowhere to go but up,” said state Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami. “My suggestion to everyone is, don’t just look at the pretty cover of the car. Make sure you look under the hood. We’re doing so many things that are clearly going backwards.”

To be fair, the state under Scott recently approved and partially funded a vast $1.4 billion Everglades reservoir that’s supposed to help relieve dumping from Lake Okeechobee. And in Scott’s first term, the state launched an Everglades $880 million cleanup plan after the state was sued for not enforcing pollution laws.

Florida’s new budget will kick in this July. With money to spend and a savvy knack for celebrating accomplishments big and small in all corners of a state of more than 20 million people, expect DeSantis to continue working and touting his efforts. He now has about $322 million for Lake Okeechobee restoration, $100 million for springs restoration and millions more for other water and environmental projects.

And he has built up big expectations among voters that he’ll usher in a new era of environmentalism in Florida.

“What Republicans have an opening to do is really be good stewards of the environment that we all enjoy,” DeSantis said Tuesday, explaining his philosophy on the environment. “It’s more focusing on concrete areas of the environment that we all want to enjoy rather than doing some of the really far-out things that you’ve seen proposed in the Congress recently, which I think are just totally impractical.”

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