Agriculture, Environmental Funding Pitched

Dan Economy, Environment, Florida, Industry News Release

agricultureAgriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam will ask state lawmakers for $75 million next year to fund a depleted program that helps shield agricultural land from development.

Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday he will propose spending $21 million to help struggling citrus growers reeling after Hurricane Irma.

“They have one crop a year. With all the wind and the rain, it was devastating,” Scott said during an annual Associated Press pre-session event in the Capitol.

The citrus industry, which suffered an estimated $761 million in losses from the September storm, is forecast to see a 21 percent drop in oranges produced this season compared to the 2016-2017 season, with grapefruit production expected to drop 37 percent.

Even before Irma, the industry was suffering because of deadly citrus greening disease.

supreme court vetoScott, who plans to release a proposed state budget in the coming weeks, said the proposal will include $10 million for citrus research, $4 million for marketing and $7 million for post-storm relief.

Scott, Putnam, legislative leaders and gubernatorial candidates appeared at the annual Associated Press event at the Capitol, as they prepare for the 2018 legislative session and next year’s elections. The 60-day session starts Jan. 9.

Putnam, who is running for governor, said he will ask lawmakers to include $75 million in the 2018-2019 budget for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.

“It is something that is important to not only protecting working ag lands in the state but protecting the landscapes, the viewscapes, the wildlife habitat, connecting corridors,” Putnam said.

The program received $10 million in the current fiscal year.

scottA priority of Putnam, the program involves the state purchasing “conservation easements,” which allow landowners to continue farming or ranching but prevents development on the rural properties.

Created in 2001, the program has been used to conserve 38,000 acres. Nearly 94 percent of the land preserved through the program has come since 2011, with Putnam pushing the program.

The last of the money for the current year was used Oct. 17 when Scott and the Cabinet agreed to spend $5.7 million for 2,500 acres of ranch land in Okeechobee County that drains into the Kissimmee River.

Scott announced a series of environmental proposals last week but didn’t include the Rural and Family Lands program.

Instead, Scott focused on the Florida Forever program, which didn’t receive any money from the Legislature for the current year. Scott is requesting $50 million for Florida Forever, which for years was the state’s most prominent land-preservation fund.

working forestsSenate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, also has proposed a measure (SB 370) that would set aside at least $100 million a year for Florida Forever.

Since 2001, Florida Forever has been used to purchase more than 718,000 acres for $2.9 billion. But the program has languished since the recession and as some key legislators have questioned the need for Florida to buy more land while struggling to manage the acres it already owns.

Money for both land programs would come through a 2014 constitutional amendment, which directed lawmakers to use one-third of the revenue generated by a real estate tax for conservation measures.

The documentary stamp tax is expected to generate $862.2 million next fiscal year for a trust fund used to carry out the amendment, according to an August estimate by state economists.

Environmental groups are battling the state in court about whether some of the trust-fund money has been improperly diverted from conservation purposes to agency staffing and operational expenses.

Meanwhile, Thursday, Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, told reporters that his priorities for the 2018 session will include implementation of a measure (SB 10) he backed during the 2017 session (SB 10) to build a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

The reservoir is intended to clean and move water south. That would reduce releases of water from Lake Okeechobee to the east and west, where coastal residents have blamed polluted lake water for toxic outbreaks.

Negron said he will also try to meet Scott’s request for $50 million to help the federal government speed repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.

“I believe we can do two things at once,” Negron said.

by Jim Turner, News Service of Florida