Liberals would have you believe Florida Forever has been left gasping its last on the governor's floor. Pay no attention. It's not true.
The state's venerable land purchase and preservation program is alive and certainly well enough for now, living on a trimmed-down allowance. It's part of our family of realities in Florida's fragile economic recovery, taking its place among competing priorities in the state budget.
But liberals -- environmentalists and the Florida media in particular -- don't want their baby living on an allowance.
They don't care that we're already living in a state with more land under public ownership per square mile than any other east of the Mississippi.
Last week when Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet signed off on the pursuit of $8 million worth of land purchases for preservation, it wasn't enough for these folks. Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida, told the Cabinet it's time to end the funding drought and return Florida Forever to the $300 million a year it received before 2008.
Editorial pages across the state took up the Florida Forever banner. The Tampa Bay Times, Orlando Sentinel, Palm Beach Post, Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers and others: How dare this state government, emerging from the recession as it is, continue to starve Florida Forever?
Draper, incidentally, is somebody we can expect to hear a lot more from. He told the Tampa Bay Times he is considering a run for agriculture commissioner on the Democratic ticket in 2014.
Certainly the mock outrage over a mere $8 million earmarked for state land buys in this fiscal year presented a great opportunity for the liberal press to push the environmentalist agenda -- specifically, the Florida Water and Land Legacy Campaign, a 2014 constitutional amendment that would ensure a dedicated funding source for land acquisition, using at least 33 percent of net revenues from doc stamps.
But here's my question. Does Florida need $300 million in more state land now?
Do we really put $300 million worth of preservation land ahead of money for Medicaid, education, tax relief, children, job creation, helping Florida businesses survive -- or for the many dozens of programs that have been slashed right alongside Florida Forever since 2010?
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, on behalf of the Florida Forever program, purchased an average of 72,787 acres per year from 2002-03 until 2009-10. But DEP has purchased only 32,610 acres in the three fiscal years since Gov. Rick Scott took office as the Legislature cut funding for the program.
Note again that Florida Forever was cut, it wasn't killed. It fell lower on the priority list as the governor and the Legislature sought to balance the budget in a time of shrinking revenue.
The Department of Environmental Protection had $67.6 million available for Florida Forever in fiscal 2011-12, with nearly $40 million of that committed as part of pending litigation settlements. (That, by the way, is what you get with state land purchases -- a multitude of litigation.) The department purchased 8,217 acres for $27.3 million in fiscal 2011-12.
A week ago the Cabinet approved a 2012-13 Florida Forever priority list with 113 projects that included more than 1.9 million acres. That represents a conservation wish list from which projects are taken and placed on the annual work plan.
Certainly all of the projects earmarked for purchase are on the list for a reason. Either they are good for water conservation, they are prospective parkland or they include a fragile ecosystem with rare or endangered species.
But, please, let's look at the public land ownership situation -- and remember that vast lands purchased for preservation have to be maintained. You decide if Florida can afford to keep Florida Forever on a lower priority level for another year:
-- Some 13.1 percent of Florida is under federal ownership alone -- that's 4,536,811 acres.
-- Just shy of 30 percent of the state is in public ownership at this moment. That number would include the hundreds of thousands of acres owned by federal, state and local authorities in the 67 counties. To repeat, it makes the Sunshine State by far the largest owner/holder of public land east of the Mississippi River. This, according to the Congressional Research Service's Federal Land Ownership Overview.
I realize Florida's liberal contingent is working hard to crank up its discredit-Rick-Scott campaign, and they see the only slightly improved Florida Forever funding level for this year as a pretty outrageous indictment against Gov. Scott.
That's the same Scott who has managed to lower the state debt and put Florida on a sound fiscal footing.
Ask the next liberal you see: What $300 million would you cut from the budget to get us more public land and return Florida Forever to former funding levels? Show me the money.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at (850) 727-0859.