(NSF/TALLAHASSEE, FL/Feb. 7, 2023) — After Gov. Ron DeSantis left the money out of his proposed budget, Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson continues to push state lawmakers to replenish funding for a program aimed at keeping ranches and farms from future development.
Simpson, speaking Monday to the Senate Agriculture Committee, stressed the need to push forward with the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. The program directs money toward conservation easements, which allow farmers and ranchers to continue their operations with restrictions that keep the land from future development.
“When you think about Rural and Family Lands, if you can buy development rights, you’re going to make sure that 50 years from now, 100 years from now, we can still farm in the state,” Simpson said.
Simpson also said the program would help in creating a planned 18 million-acre statewide wildlife corridor, maintaining food security and helping to recharge fresh-water aquifers.
DeSantis did not include money for the program in a proposed $114.8 billion budget that he released last week for the fiscal year that will start July 1. His staff believes a $300 million pot of money in the current year’s budget for land acquisition and conservation will last into next fiscal year.
The 2022-2023 budget, which began in July, held the $300 million in reserve until Jan. 1. At that point, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services was required to submit a plan on how land will be managed.
Simpson, who was Senate president when the budget was crafted, said his department has been quickly putting together a list of ranchers and farmers ready to close on easement deals. He expects to present DeSantis and the other members of the state Cabinet — Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — with an initial list of deals next month.
“If we meet in March, we’ll be bringing our first round of approvals there,” Simpson said. “I believe we’ll have upwards of about $100 million that we believe, minimally, that we will bring to that Cabinet meeting and maybe more than that.”
The governor’s overall environmental budget proposal has drawn differing views on conservation spending.
After the proposal was rolled out, the governor’s office released a list of statements praising the spending plan. Among other things, it includes a second-term goal of spending $3.5 billion over four years on environmental projects such as restoring the Everglades and addressing water-quality problems.
“The governor is calling for investments in Florida’s natural infrastructure, especially water quality and boosting the state’s resilience,” Audubon Florida Executive Director Julie Wraithmell said in a statement. “Florida’s environment is the foundation of our prosperity, and these environmental investments will pay dividends now and into the future.”
Wraithmell was joined in a news release by representatives from Captains For Clean Water, The Everglades Trust and Conservation Florida. They touted funding to clean water and address environmental concerns.
But questions have been raised about whether Everglades funding drains money from other critical needs. DeSantis is proposing $614 million in Everglades money for next fiscal year.
“I wish it were otherwise, but the governor’s proposed budget looks like more of the same when it comes to water and land conservation funding,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters. “His proposal would direct half of the Land Acquisition Trust fund intended by voters for water and land conservation to Everglades restoration alone.”
Voters in 2014 passed a constitutional amendment that requires setting aside one-third of the revenue from documentary-stamp taxes for land conservation. That money, which is generated through real-estate transactions, goes into the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.
During the current fiscal year, $1.26 billion went into the fund. Lawmakers have designated portions of the money to various work across the state, with at least $200 million a year for Everglades restoration projects, $64 million to an Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir project, $50 million for a Lake Okeechobee watershed restoration project and $50 million for natural springs.
By Jim Turner, News Service of Florida