Florida Forever, the state’s signature land-preservation program, will get a sizable, one-time boost in funding as lawmakers inched closer Sunday to patching together an estimated $92 billion budget for next fiscal year.
House and Senate negotiators also agreed to keep alive an economic development fund backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis but cut spending on the program.
The $100 million planned for Florida Forever isn’t the $300 million the program annually received more than a decade ago, but it’s a boost for supporters of the program, which got $33 million during the current fiscal year.
“The emails can stop,” said House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Chairwoman Holly Raschein, a Key Largo Republican who is leading House negotiators on environmental issues.
The House initially proposed spending $20 million on Florida Forever during the upcoming 2020-2021 fiscal year, while the Senate proposed $125 million. The $100 million agreement came as conference committees worked over the weekend to iron out differences on the new budget.
Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat who sponsored a bill (SB 332) seeking $100 million a year for Florida Forever, called the funding “a start.”
“I know that the environmental community is somewhat disappointed, they were hoping for $300 (million) or $400 million, because for so many years we haven’t totally funded everybody,” Stewart said. “We’re going to be able to get a lot more projects because of the $100 (million).”
Lindsay Cross of the Florida Conservation Voters said the funding is a sign of progress.
“Tripling the amount of money that we have for land conservation is moving us back to the really solid place that we used to be,” Cross said.
The House and Senate also have agreed on more than $650 million for Everglades restoration and water projects, exceeding a $625 million request by DeSantis, Raschein said.
Also, in the environmental package is a change to remove a $5 million-a-year allocation from what is known as the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to help in the restoration of Lake Apopka.
The fund draws money from a real-estate tax under a 2014 constitutional amendment aimed at land and water conservation. Lawmakers in previous sessions earmarked annual spending from the fund for Lake Apopka, along with about $200 million for Everglades protection, $64 million for a reservoir project in the Everglades Agricultural Area and $50 million for the state’s natural springs.
The agreements on environmental issues came as the House and Senate negotiate a spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Delays in negotiating the budget likely will lead to lawmakers having to extend the legislative session beyond its planned Friday conclusion.
Among other issues that have been resolved, the House and Senate set aside $10 million for the Job Growth Grant Fund, a program that started under former Gov. Rick Scott amid battles about economic-development funding. The $10 million is down from $40 million available for the program in the current fiscal year — an amount that DeSantis wanted to maintain.
Last year, DeSantis requested $85 million for the fund, matching what Scott, now a U.S. senator, got in each of his final two years of in the governor’s office.
The Job Growth Grant Fund, created in 2017, provides money for job training and public infrastructure projects. Since being started, nearly $186 million has been awarded to 57 communities. It was created as a compromise after the House fought Scott proposals for economic-development money that could go directly to businesses.
The Senate initially pitched spending $20 million on the program next fiscal year, while the House looked to eliminate the fund before the middle ground was reached this weekend.
On Saturday, House and Senate leaders announced they had reached agreements on numerous key issues, including a 3 percent across-the-board pay raise for all state employees, $50 million for the tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida and leaving intact the state affordable-housing trust fund.
The House had proposed spending $147 million on affordable housing and “sweeping” other affordable-housing trust-fund money to balance the broader state budget. But House leaders backed down, leaving roughly $370 million available for affordable housing in the upcoming year.
The Visit Florida funding matches the amount in the current year, after House leaders had threatened to drain the agency’s budget. House leaders have long questioned the need for spending state dollars on tourism promotion.
The two chambers also agreed Saturday on $500 million for teacher salary increases, matching an amount the Senate had proposed. The House initially proposed $650 million.
DeSantis had called for the Republican-dominated Legislature to approve a $602 million plan that would set a minimum salary of $47,500 for public school teachers. DeSantis also asked legislators to set aside $300 million for a new bonus program for teachers and principals — an idea the House and Senate rejected.
Legislators also have earmarked $25 million to help the state combat the novel coronavirus disease, known as COVID-19.
–Jim Turner, News Service of Florida