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Scott proposes almost doubling Everglades spending

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott proposed spending $130 million on Everglades restoration Wednesday, almost doubling what the state is currently putting into water treatment and other projects across South and Central Florida.

The Republican governor also managed to fire a shot at the Obama administration, for reducing an $80 million expenditure on the Everglades to $46 million this year — saying it’s the lowest amount spent by the federal government in two decades on the fabled river of grass.

But he said the state is doing its share.

“We’ve made a lot of progress on the Everglades,” Scott said Wednesday at a Cabinet meeting in Kissimmee.

Scott’s proposal would sharply increase the $70 million currently spent on Everglades work. He announced the budget recommendation following an update on work currently going on in the region made by state and federal officials and representatives of environmental groups.

Dan Kimball, supervisor of Everglades National Park, told Scott and the Cabinet the wide-ranging efforts are aimed at a seemingly simple goal.

“We will ensure that the water entering the Everglades is clean,” Kimball said.

About $30 million of the money recommended Wednesday by Scott will go toward continuing work on a bridge along the Tamiami Trail. The bridge will help fix a road that has acted for decades as a dam, blocking the flow of fresh water to the southern Everglades and help ease water flowing from Lake Okeechobee that has fouled the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

Kimball said the federal government will match the state’s three-year, $90 million commitment to the Tamiami Trail work. Eric Eikenberg, chief executive officer of the Everglades Foundation, said the project “will uncork the southern end of the Everglades,” and improve the entire system.

On the northern end of the Everglades, Scott’s budget proposal also would continue the state’s 25-year effort to restore the Kissimmee River basin and continue water storage and treatment projects from the Lake Okeechobee area to South Miami-Dade County.

Scott’s Everglades announcement came only a day after he unveiled plans to increase spending on restoring Florida’s springs. Scott said he wants to spend $55 million on the work this election year, up from $10 million currently.

As a first-year governor in 2011, Scott dramatically cut property taxes going to water management districts – forcing wholesale layoffs and limiting state oversight. The same year, he signed into law legislation that eliminated most of the state’s 25-year-old growth management laws.

But Scott now defends his environmental record, citing the Everglades commitment as a key example.

Scott is helped this year by a budget surplus of about $1.1 billion and has already proposed increases in transportation and tourism, and a pledge to reduce taxes and fees by $500 million. He is expected to unveil his full budget proposal to the Legislature next week.

 

Everglades fundraiser planned for The Breakers

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013 by John Kennedy

The ninth annual ForEverglades Benefit, which usually raises a couple million dollars for work aimed at restoring the fabled grass sea, will feature Grammy Award-winners the Zac Brown Band, organizers announced Wednesday.

The event is planned for Feb. 15 at The Breakers in Palm Beach. It also will mark the 20th anniversary of the Everglades Foundation.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled to have Zac Brown Band kick off our 20th anniversary celebration,” said Eric Eikenberg, Everglades Foundation CEO. “Restoring and protecting America’s Everglades is very important to all of us and having Zac bring attention to this cause means a lot to the entire organization and its supporters.”

The ForEverglades Benefit raises cash to support the science, policy, communications, and education programs of the Everglades Foundation.

Lawmakers poised to pour more money into fight to save rivers

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013 by John Kennedy

A legislative panel is poised to approve spending almost $2.8 million more in coming months to improve pump stations vital to stemming the flow of polluted water to the troubled St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

The state’s Legislative Budget Commission is expected Thursday to give state environmental regulators and the South Florida Water Management District authority to spend the money for what the agencies call “short-term policies.”

Nutrient-rich water from Lake Okeechobee has been flowing into the rivers, killing oysters and sea grass and causing a toxic algae outbreak that has forced Martin County health officials to warn residents against coming into contact with the water.

Environmental officials say that improving the pumping stations and storing water on public lands across the region should ease the flow of dirty water into the rivers. The project also could more safely divert Lake Okeechobee water south into the Everglades National Park and out into Florida Bay, officials said.

A heavy rainy season has forced state and federal officials to struggle to keep Lake Okeechobee water levels low to avoid adding pressure to an aged, 143-mile dike that separates the big lake from surrounding farms and residences.

Bonus program approved, despite concern it costs Florida’s environment

Friday, June 28th, 2013 by John Kennedy

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection was authorized Friday to distribute almost $600,000 in bonuses to 269 employees as a reward for improving efficiency and saving$8.8 million in taxpayer money over the past year.

But Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, derided the bonus system as flawed, warning it effectively rewarded state regulators for approving environmental permits more quickly — comprosing the underlying mission of the agency.

“These types of bonuses may impact decision-making when we are putting in incentives to speed up the approval process,” Pafford told the Legislative Budget Commission.

Pafford said the bonus program is troubling given Gov. Rick Scott’s environmental record, which he said favors job-creating industries over protecting water bodies and greenways.

Since taking office in 2011, Scott has signed legislation which cut water management district budgets, resulting in the wholesale layoff of regulators. Scott also eliminated the state’s Department of Community Affairs and sharply scaled back growth management standards, undoing many that had been in place since 1985.

Senate Budget Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, defended the department’s approach. Negron said DEP was seeking approval to use an existing state agency incentive and savings program that had nothing to do with hurrying-up permits.

Negron said DEP had successfully taken steps to assure regulatory actions were taken “in a timely manner.” He pointed out that he, too, would share Pafford’s concerns if improving efficiency meant reducing department standards.

“The way this is drafted, it will not create incentives for specific outcomes,” Negron said.

The measure was approved by the budget commission, an arm of the Legislature, with Pafford the lone vote against the proposal.

DEP deputy secretary Jeff Littlejohn said that 269 employees out of 1,600 in the agency are eligible for the bonuses, which will range from just under $1,000 to about $5,000. The checks are likely to be distributed in August, Littlejohn said.

 

Everglades plan clears the House

Friday, March 22nd, 2013 by John Kennedy

A measure aimed at enacting an $880 million Everglades plan cleared the Florida House 114-0 Friday, after the sugar industry and environmentalists reached a truce on the complex clean-up effort.

Conservation groups fought an earlier House proposal, claiming it favored sugar growers and putting the burden on South Florida taxpayers to build stormwater treatment and storage areas over the next decade to improve water quality across the region.

But negotiations between the two sides led to Friday’s compromise, which is expected to win Senate approval in coming days. Gov. Rick Scott has indicated he would sign the legislation.

“This is an accomplishment for all of us,” said Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, sponsor of the measure (CS/HB 7065.

The legislation extends a $25-per-acre tax growers pay through 2026, which raises about $11 million annually for clean-up. The sugar industry had sought a two years’ shorter extension of the $25 standard before the rate begins to reduce. It reaches its lowest mark of $10-per-acre in 2036 — 20 years beyond when it was slated to kick-in under current law.

The measure would assure financing of the Everglades work: with $32 million annually coming from state dollars, $11 million from the sugar industry, and another $30 million from South Florida property taxpayers.

Sugar wins first round of cleanup fight

Thursday, March 7th, 2013 by John Kennedy

A House committee unanimously approved legislation Thursday backed by the powerful sugar industry that extends a $25-per-acre tax on growers for Everglades restoration, but which environmentalists say puts the largest share of cleanup costs on South Florida taxpayers.

The measure (PCB 13-01) cleared the State Affairs Committee on a 17-0 vote. Sugar lobbyists told the panel the legislation sets the stage for completing an $880 million Everglades effort advanced by Gov. Rick Scott — with growers paying their fair share.

“We are optimistic this plan is going to be successful,” Phil Parsons, representing the Florida Sugar Cane League, told the committee.

Scott, however, supports a Senate bill that doesn’t readdress the Everglades Agricultural Privilege Tax. The $25-per-acre levy has been paid by growers since 1994, but is slated to fall to $10-per-acre in 2016.

Sugar growers say the legislation makes them pay an extra $6.6 million to the South Florida Water Management District — and that’s an appropriate amount.

Environmental organizations, however, want to shelve the House bill. They point to research which shows 60 percent of the pollution in waterways feeding the Everglades stems from farms in the region around Lake Okeechobee.

Setting the new tax rate now — rather than reviewing it later, before it expires in 2016 — will prove a good deal for the sugar industry. They fear it will shut off any discussion of whether sugar it paying its proper share.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the $880 million cleanup project will fall on taxpayers, said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation.

“That’s an inequity that should be addressed,” Eikenberg said.

 

Rising sea levels more than just South Florida’s costly problem, officials say

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013 by John Kennedy

South Florida lawmakers got a stark look Wednesday at how rising sea levels could dramatically change Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade counties and the Keys in coming years, leading to calls for more state aid to stem the tide.

County planners and water managers from officials presented an 84-page action plan to regional legislators that was compiled last fall. While climate change has caused sea level to climb nine inches over the past century, that rate is accelerating and could advance an at least an additional nine inches over the next 50 years, analysts have concluded.

Evidence of the changes are already being seen across South Florida, where regional flooding and saltwater intrusion is becoming common in area canals and waterways. Several lawmakers said a goal for this spring’s legislative session should be to convince more of their colleagues that South Florida’s problems have a statewide impact.

“We’ve got to convince the rest of the state that this is an economic disaster,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. “We can’t wait for sea levels to keep rising. We’ve got to plan for the future.”

Making more funding available for the region is a likely push, said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, chairman of the Palm Beach County legislative delegation, who organized Wednesday’s hearing. “This demands our attention,” he said.

Officials speaking at Wednesday’s hearing offered plenty of anecdotes about South Florida’s changing coastline. In Broward County, several waterside neighborhoods commonly flood during high tides; on Stock Island, in the Keys, Monroe County officials are elevating the ground floor of a new fire station, in anticipation of future flooding, officials said. Roads, sewer systems and development decisions will all be affected by the changing water line across the region, officials said.

In Palm Beach County, Everglades restoration efforts could be slowed by rising saltwater intrusion, hurting water management efforts, said Ernie Barnett of the South Florida Water Management District.

“You can fight water with water,” Barnett said. “We need to push more water through the Everglades toward the coast.”

The report by local officials included some sobering conclusions about the impact of rising water on the area.

The report found, “The upper estimate of current taxable property values in Monroe, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties vulnerable in the one-foot scenario is $4 billion with values rising to more than $31 billion at the three-foot scenario. The greater values reflected in the financial impacts are coastal residential properties with ocean access and high taxable value.”

But Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, offered a darker view. He said lawmakers and county officials will have a challenging time convincing many Florida leaders to direct dollars toward fighting what he said was an inevitable change.

“We can do this stuff,” Hager said. “But inevitably, the cycles of the earth will overcome whatever we do.”

Former Crist aide named new Everglades Foundation CEO

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012 by John Kennedy

A former top aide to ex-Gov. Charlie Crist has been named the Everglades Foundation’s new chief executive officer.

Eric Eikenberg, who was chief-of-staff for Crist and, earlier, for former U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, will lead the environmental advocacy organization beginning July 1. He succeeds Kirk Fordham, who announced last month he was leaving the Miami-based nonprofit to take a job as executive director of the Gill Action Fund, a leading gay rights advocacy organization.

“Eric impressed us from the first moment we met. He has a deep understanding of what it takes to achieve success both in Washington and Tallahassee and he has the leadership skills that will help the Foundation continue to be at the forefront of Everglades restoration,” said Paul Tudor Jones, II, Everglades Foundation chairman. 

Since leaving Crist’s office, Eikenberg has been a senior policy advisor for the law firm, Holland & Knight. During his time in the governor’s office, Eikenberg was a central negotiator in forging a deal to buy 187,000 acres of land owned by U.S. Sugar, part of a plan to sharply reduce sugar production in the region and use the property for Everglades restoration.

Crist’s successor, Gov. Rick Scott, opposed the sale, and the South Florida Water Management District went forward with a scaled-back plan by acquiring 27,000 of sugar land. Scott last fall unveiled his own plan for moving forward with Everglades work. Environmentalists expect Scott to offer more refinements to his proposal in coming weeks.

“I am honored to join the Everglades Foundation as its next chief executive officer,” Eikenberg said. “The mission is simple:  Save the Everglades. It is the source of water for more than 7 million Floridians and a driver of our economy. What we do now, will determine whether our generation leaves future generations with a vibrant, healthy, River of Grass.”

 

Everglades Foundation CEO to leave

Thursday, March 1st, 2012 by John Kennedy

The Everglades Foundation’s chief executive officer, Kirk Fordham, is leaving the Miami-based nonprofit to take a job as executive director of the Gill Action Fund, a leading gay rights advocacy organization.

Fordham has been with the Everglades Foundation for four years, leading state and federal efforts to maintain funding for Everglades restoration. Fordham’s announcement comes a day after state House and Senate budget-writers agreed to steer $30 million in restoration this year, $10 million less than what Gov. Rick Scott is seeking for continuing the long-delayed clean-up.

“Making the decision to move was not easy.  I enjoy every day of my work at the Everglades Foundation – which employs an enormously talented staff and a growing list of supporters across Florida and the nation,” said Fordham, who will stay with the foundation until mid-April.

Gill Action is Denver-based. Founded by Tim Gill, a computer software entrepreneur, the organization has helped lead anti-discrimination legislation in several states while also helping finance LGBT candidates in state and federal races.

Fordham had served 14 years as a chief of staff and senior legislative advisor on Capitol Hill, working for three members of Congress, including former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley of Lake Worth. Fordham also was finance director for former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez.

 

 

Senate agrees to another round of Everglades cash

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Senate budget negotiators sided Wednesday with the House and agreed to steer $30 million toward Everglades restoration this year, drawing praise from advocates for the longterm cleanup effort.

Kirk Fordham, chief executive officer of the Everglades Foundation, even held out the possibility that more cash could emerge as lawmakers continue to wrangle on a roughly $70 billion state spending plan.

“As Senate and House budget conferees continue to negotiate, with strong support from Gov. Scott, we are confident the state will begin to shift back to the historic levels of investment in Everglades restoration made during the Jeb Bush years,” Fordham said.  “Every dollar we invest on Everglades is an enormous benefit for Floridians who depend on this natural resource for their livelihoods.”

Scott has unveiled wide-ranging plans to build reservoirs, unblock flow ways, control seepage and expand man-made wetlands by 2022, as part of the restoration effort. He sought $40 million in state cash for the coming year.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, had indicated a few weeks ago that his side planned to come up to House levels of Everglades funding, after zeroing out spending in its budget plan. The House had recommended $35 million for Everglades restoration and other work.

Senate budget chief: Everglades money coming

Thursday, February 9th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Everglades lovers should probably chill out over the lack of funding for river of grass clean-up in the Senate budget.

Senate budget chief JD Alexander said this morning he’s “seriously considering” matching the House’s $35 million line-item for Everglades restoration. Gov. Rick Scott tucked away $40 million for the clean-up, and the money will almost certainly show up late in negotiations between the two chambers over their spending plans.

“We’re looking at it. We’re trying to figure out if we can afford it this year,” Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said, adding that he’s supported that and the Florida Forever land-buying program for his 14 years in the legislature soon coming to an end. “So it’s something I’d love to see us be able to do.
I would hope we’d be able to eventually get there…If we can do something it won’t be a lot, but we’d certainly like to provide some funding for preservation of Florida’s ecological needs.”

Alexander said he doesn’t foresee much trouble reconciling the two spending plans. The Senate’s proposal includes deeper health and human services, more spending on schools and road projects and dips into state universities’ reserves.

“There aren’t a lot of differences. It should be fairly easy to get to something we both can agree to,” Alexander said.

No money for Everglades clean-up in Senate budget – yet

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The Florida Senate hasn’t included any money for Everglades restoration in its spending plan, but the money may soon flow to the “River of Grass.”

Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Miami Democrat, questioned Senate General Government Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Hays about the absence of the money during a meeting late Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s definitely in play,” Hays, R-Umatilla, assured him. “It’s an open issue.”

Gov. Rick Scott included $40 million for Everglades restoration in his budget proposal, and the House wants to spend $30 million on clean-up and another $5 million for northern Everglades projects.

The Senate’s plan prompted an outcry from Everglades Foundation CEO Kirk Fordham, who urged the Senate to go along with Scott’s $40 million allocation.

“We are disappointed that the Florida Senate has decided to risk the future of Florida’s water supply by refusing to provide any funding for Everglades restoration,” Fordham said in a press release. “This is not the time to delay the vital work that needs to be done. More than 7 million Floridians depend on the Everglades for fresh water. Any delay threatens the welfare of 1 in 3 Floridians and the economic well-being of our state.”

Everglades love-fest blows up over ‘Polluter Pays’

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012 by Dara Kam

An Everglades love-fest turned nasty Tuesday afternoon when Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Everglades Foundation Chairman Paul Tudor Jones sniped about whether the agriculture industry is meeting its obligation to pay for restoring the “River of Grass.”

Everglades Summit moderator Chuck Todd, MSNBC’s national correspondent, launched the dust-up by asking a panel including Gov. Rick Scott, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Putnam and Jones about a constitutional amendment approved by voters more than 15 years ago requiring polluters to pay for the primary costs of Everglades cleanup.

Putnam praised the agriculture industry, including sugar growers, for cutting back on the amount of nutrients flowing into the Everglades by half, more than double what the law calls for.

“We are seeing a much better conversation between agriculture and the environmental community because all of us have watched in the last 10 years watching as development just explodes,” Putnam said.

But Jones wasn’t satisfied, and responded with an off-the-wall reference to a “Saturday Night Live” skit lampooning “60 Minutes” co-hosts Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick.

“Shana, you bitch,” Jones said to Putnam.

Caught off guard until Jones explained his joke, Putnam responded: “Well at least I didn’t say, ‘Jane, you ignorant…”

Turning serious, Jones said the agriculture industry contributes up to 87 percent of the pollution in the Everglades but picks up only about 13 percent of the clean-up costs.

“Really the question is what is fair. What should be the actual cost that they’re going to pay?” Jones said. “When it comes to enforcing the will of the people of the state and the constitution what kind of leadership are we going to get from the executive department?”

Read the rest of the story here.

Snakes alive! Scott supports Salazar snake sanction

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott supports U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar‘s ban on the importation of Burmese pythons and three other non-native constrictive snakes, the governor said this afternoon.

MSNBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd asked Scott and Salazar about the snake ban at an Everglades Summit in Tallahassee this afternoon.

“People laugh about this but…it’s crazy,” said Todd, a Miami native. “This issue of my idiot old neighbors in South Florida. They import these pets then get scared of them and dump them in the Everglades.”

The pythons are “injurious and they are dangerous,” Salazar said.

Salazar said the python ban is part of a comprehensive approach to cleaning up the Everglades.

“We need to make sure the investments that we’re making…that they’re not for naught,” he said.

The invasive snakes are killing native habitat and wildlife, Salazar said.

“We need to make sure that what we are doing is comprehensive,” he said. “We need to look at the Everglades as an entire ecosystem.”

Critics said Salazar’s ban doesn’t go far enough because he only targeted four of nine dangerous snakes.

“We tailored our regulation to go after the present danger that we have in the Everglades and right now it’s the Burmese python, which is making up habitat with tens of thousands of Burmese pythons that are out there,” Salazar said after the meeting.

Salazar said his agency his “going after those species that present the greatest threat right now” and that five other species are being scrutinized scientifically and for the economic implications of banning those as well.

“But these four are the first step and we have the other five under consideration,” he said.

Scott said he supports the new federal rule, especially because Congress has failed for three years to pass U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s legislation that would have outlawed pythons.

Nelson praised Salazar and blasted critics for trying to “delay and obstruct” the new rule.

“These giant constrictor snakes do not belong in the Everglades and they do not belong in people’s back yards. Not only are they upsetting the ecological balance because they’re at the top of the food chain. They even attack alligators and consume them,” Nelson said.

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Graham blasts water ‘privatization’

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham cautioned lawmakers and environmentalists this morning that “privatizing” state waters would cause “considerable damage” to the Everglades and cause Floridians to lose control of thousands of acres of wetlands.

“There’s no project in Florida that would be more adversely affected,” said Graham, who was a member of the legislature more than four decades ago and then governor when some of the state’s water and conservation policies were first created.

Graham was in town as environmentalists, government officials – including U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Gov. Rick Scott – and others gathered nearby for a day-long Everglades Water Supply Summit.

Speaking to the Florida Legislative Everglades Caucus, Graham called on them to reject two water measures he called “not just the camel’s nose but the camel’s neck and shoulders under the tent of privatization of water.

The first (HB 639) would allow utilities to have permanent ownership of water they have used and treated. The other (HB 1103) would change the definition of the “high water line” that determines where private property ends and state-owned waters begin. Critics, including Graham, say the measure would cause the state to lose hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands after years of litigation determining what the water line means.

“When we privatize ownership of Florida’s water resources, it takes water away from the Everglades. It’s just pure and simple. You can spend a bunch of money trying to get water into the Everglades but if somebody owns it, you’ll never get it there,” said Audubon of Florida executive director Eric Draper.

Graham also urged lawmakers to undo a move that gave the legislature more control over the state’s five water management districts, to boost money to the state’s land conservation program Florida Forever.

But the biggest threat to the River of Grass would be an end to the cooperation between state and federal officials to restore the state’s ecological treasure, the former governor advised. The protracted Everglades restoration projects have caused fear that the effort is unraveling.

“The thing that would be the most fatal to Everglades restoration is if this marriage between the state of Florida and the federal government were to be broken. Neither partner alone either has the financial or legal capabilities of carrying this off,” Graham said.

A poll released this morning found that 64 percent of voters surveyed favored increased spending on Everglades restoration, up from 51 percent who supported increased funding in a February 2011 survey.

Poll: Romney and Obama even in Florida; 64% want more Everglades spending

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012 by George Bennett

A new poll commissioned by the Everglades Foundation shows President Obama and GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney in a dead heat in Florida.

Obama gets 46 percent and Romney 45 percent, with 9 percent undecided, in the poll conducted by the Republican firm The Tarrance Group. The poll of 607 likely voters has a 4.1 percent margin of error. Obama holds a 44-39 lead among independents and a 50-41 lead among Hispanic voters. Romney holds a 54-37 lead among white voters and leads among voters who are 45 and older while Obama leads with voters 44 and younger.

Voters were asked if “funding for Everglades restoration should be increased because protecting the water supply is critical to the future economic success of the state” or if “funding for Everglades restoration must continue to be cut because the state is facing a massive budget crisis and cuts must be made to every program.”

By a 64-to-28 percent margin, voters favored increasing Everglades funding. That’s up from 51-to-41 percent support for more Everglades spending in February 2011.

The poll was released today to coincide with the opening of a two-day Everglades summit in Tallahassee.

Graham tries to fire-up enviros before session begins

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham has sent out an end-of-year call from the newly created Florida Conservation Coalition, urging environmental activists to buttonhole their legislators before the Jan. 10 session begins.

The coalition was unveiled last month, with plans to lobby Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Legislature to revive state funding for water quality programs, the Florida Forever land-buying program and Everglades restoration, which supporters say have been staggered by budget cuts since 2007.

In his email blast to activists, Graham condemns last spring’s policy changes and spending reductions.

“In three short months of 2011, the Governor and Legislature set Florida’s once proud conservation laws and programs back four decades. In so doing they have handed us a very heavy lift. But what choices do we have? We surrender, or we fight back,”  Graham said.

He concluded, “Our immediate job is to convince the Legislature that they went too far and must correct and reverse its misguided actions of 2011.”

The coalition includes Audubon of Florida, 1000 Friends of Florida, the Nature Conservancy, Florida Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Trust for Public Land and League of Women Voters.

 

Everglades Foundation to host Tallahassee summit

Monday, December 12th, 2011 by John Kennedy

With Gov. Rick Scott emerging for many environmentalists as a surprising defender of Everglades restoration, one of the issue’s biggest advocates is taking its case to the state Capitol next month.

The Everglades Foundation announced Monday that it will host a two-day water supply summit in Tallahassee, Jan. 17-18, hosted by NBC News’ Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd.

 The state capital summit comes on the heels of last year’s America’s Everglades Summit in Washington, D.C. That huddle featured state and federal leaders, supporters of the Everglades, and had former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw hosting a discussion on the challenges facing Everglades restoration.

 ”Anytime you can bring together people who care deeply about Florida’s economy, the Everglades and the future of our water supply, you create an opportunity to find answers that will work,” said Paul Tudor Jones, the hedge fund millionaire and Everglades Foundation chairman.

Scott proposed spending $40 million for Everglades clean-up work in the budget proposal released last week.  The money would be steered toward the effort Scott unveiled in October plans to build reservoirs, unblock flow ways, control seepage and expand man-made wetlands by 2022.

The governor’s proposal stretches the already stalled clean-up plan another two years. But it was designed to answer federal environmental officials critical of the state’s slow action on the project, which once was scheduled to be completed by 2006.

State’s debt level declines for first time in at least 20 years

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Florida’s debt level dropped this year for the first time in at least 20 years — helped along by Gov. Rick Scott’s veto of some $135 million in university construction borrowing and a two-year halt on environmental land buys, the governor and Cabinet were told Tuesday.

Florida’s debt level slid to $27.7 billion this year — down $500 million from last year’s record high. That’s a sharp contrast from a year earlier, when $2 billion in additional borrowing pushed state debt to double what it was in 2000, according to the state’s Division of Bond Finance.

Ben Watkins, head of the division, said the state still will have to spend $2.2 billion in next year’s budget just to cover payments on the IOUs. That’s actually up $100 million from last year because of timing of the state’s bond issues. But refinancing of existing debt has saved the state millions this year, Watkins told Scott and the Cabinet.

Fifty-seven percent of what the state owes stems from school, college and university construction. Scott last year, took steps to rein-in that spending with his veto of university building projects, including $3.2 million for new roofing and other work at Florida Atlantic University.

 The only significant university construction work Scott allowed to become law was $35 million for work at the University of South Florida Polytechnic’s Lakeland campus, which was advanced by Senate budget chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

Scott, who was elected with strong tea party support, has been outspoken in his push to stem Florida’s rising tide of red ink. 

Since former Gov. Jeb Bush took office in 1999, ushering in a dozen years of Republican leadership, Florida’s borrowing has climbed by $12 billion. Roughly $10 billion more debt is expected to be issued through 2019, to cover currently authorized programs, the bond finance division said.

Public school and university construction projects, roadwork and environmental land purchases have driven much of the borrowing, records show. Major tax cuts enacted during Bush’s two terms and recession-forced budget reductions also helped steer lawmakers away from a pay-as-you-go approach in many spending areas.

The economy, however, has helped change the state’s spending policies. The Florida Forever land-buying program, which formerly used to borrow $300 million annually to preserve environmentally sensitive lands, has been mostly on hold the past two years.

The state’s gross receipts tax, which supports school construction projects, also has been declining. The tax is built on levies imposed on utilities — but the economic downturn and societal shift away from land-line telephones has dramatically reduced the dollars available for campus construction.

Graham leads new Conservation Coalition seeking to revive state programs

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Former Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham led a gathering of activists Wednesday calling for Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders to preserve the state’s water resources, while renewing its longstanding commitment to the environment.

“We need strong gubernatorial leadership to reverse the damage that’s been done,” Graham told a rally at the state Capitol.

Graham debuted Wednesday as leader of the Florida Conservation Coalition, which includes Audubon of Florida, 1000 Friends of Florida, the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, Trust for Public Land and League of Women Voters. The coalition plans to lobby Scott and the Republican-led Legislature to restore funding to water quality programs, the Florida Forever land-buying program, and Everglades restoration, which supporters say have been staggered by budget cuts since 2007.

Graham was joined by state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, Nathaniel Reed of 1000 Friends of Florida and representatives of environmental groups, which generally praised Scott’s environmental stance, but blasting legislative moves which reduced oversight and dollars for green programs.

Advocates derided the Legislature for approving a $210 million cut in water management district property taxes, which has led to wholescale staff layoffs and program reductions, the most profound occuring at the South Florida Water Management District. Graham said taxes were “reduced by the amount of two pizzas a year,” but that the cuts did wide-ranging harm to existing programs and services.

Environmentalists, though, withheld direct criticism of Scott, who campaigned for the reduction and embraced the  cuts. Instead, Graham, apparently buoyed by recent Scott comments which underscored the need for effective environmental policy and Everglades restoration, urged conservationists to “join Scott’s army.”

Graham also warned the coalition planned to hold lawmakers accountable for actions which hurt Florida’s environment.

“We want to alert the voters in 2012 who was responsible for what happened in 2011,” Graham said.

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