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DeSantis doles out more money for Florida's environment

Bayles, Tom

Gov. DeSantis has directed $750 million a year to the state’s environmental needs; critics say he is misspending — but supporters say it's money well spent.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has directed $750 million a year to the state’s environmental needs, the latest addition to the billions in taxpayer dollars he has earmarked to repair various ecosystems, to combat invasive species, and to plan for sea-level rise.

“Among Florida’s greatest assets are its natural resources,” DeSantis said in Fort Lauderdale when signing the measure from the legislature. “This revenue stream will further enhance our efforts to conserve our natural resources, protect our waterways, and make our ecological infrastructure more resilient.”

Directing the money to continued ecosystem restoration is a politically shrewd move in a state where the health of the environment ranks high with voters. At the same time, many of Florida’s nonprofit environmental groups have been gobsmacked by DeSantis’ dithering climate change rhetoric ever since his days as a candidate for governor.

"I am not in the pews of the church of the global warming leftists," DeSantis said at a campaign stop in 2018. “I am not a global warming person. I don't want that label on me."

"I am not in the pews of the church of the global warming leftists. I am not a global warming person. I don't want that label on me."
Gov. Ron DeSantis

During another campaign speech, he said he was not a climate change believer; at a different rally, he said he was not a climate change denier.

Still, some environmental groups are thrilled with DeSantis’ handling of the Everglades restoration.

Read more

The $750 million is from an agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida to share gambling revenue with the state. Spending it on the environment was in the bill DeSantis signed in Fort Lauderdale, which Kathleen Passidomo, the Republican Senate president from Naples, championed.

“Investing in our environment, natural resources, and water management infrastructure is vital to maintain our high quality of life in the State of Florida,” said Scott Wagner, a member of the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District. “These funds are absolutely critical towards achieving that goal.”

Spreading the spoils

The $750 million is spread throughout state agencies and universities for myriad environmental projects and studies.

The South Florida Water Management District will receive $150 million for needed improvements to its water management system, which provides drinking water to more than nine million residents and protects parts of the state from dangerous flooding.

A reported $25 million is earmarked for the district to conduct a study of the pollution levels in Lake Okeechobee in conjunction with the Florida Gulf Coast University Water School. The goal will be to discover the best ways to remove invasive plants, replant native vegetation, and to ensure fishing and hunting remain robust.

Efforts to manage or remove invasive species will receive $100 million, and the same amount of money is earmarked to buy land for the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Another $100 million will allow the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to help communities prepare for the impacts of sea level rise, intensified storms, and greater flooding.

 Invasives species like the Brazilian pepper are a huge problem in South Florida
City of Sanibel
Invasives species like the Brazilian pepper are a huge problem in South Florida

Nearly $80 million will be allocated to various agencies to try and fix lakes and streams polluted by wastewater, storm water, and agricultural sources of nutrients.

Smaller amounts will be shared with state agencies working to lessen the impacts of storm damage, surges, hurricanes, and flooding, to manage state parks, and to develop new water supplies and storage methods. (See below for specifics about where all the $750 million is planned to go, plus a chart with some of DeSantis’ past spending on the environment.)

Mixed reactions

Whenever DeSantis announces that he has decided to allocate more taxpayer dollars to Florida’s environmental needs his greatest admirers always flank him — those he installed in top positions in the government.

“In recent years, our state has made unprecedented investments to protect our wild spaces, improve water quality and preserve our natural resources,” Shawn Hamilton, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said when the governor signed the legislation in Fort Lauderdale. “The consistent revenue stream from this legislation will allow the state to double down on its efforts to protect Florida’s natural resources for generations to come.”

The environmental groups most involved in the Everglades restoration and other ecosystem management plans in Florida appear to either be totally enamored with DeSantis or less than happy with his decisions.

The Republican governor's critics accuse him of "greenwashing" by making flashy, high-budget announcements about supporting widely popular environmental initiatives in Florida, such as Everglades restoration, clean water, and combating harmful algae blooms while failing to take action to address the root causes of global warming, such as measures to restrict the burning of fossil fuels.

They argue that he has not enacted policies to reduce carbon emissions in the atmosphere or listened to any of the recommendations of his highly touted Blue Green Algae Task Force, but did sign a law that prevents local governments from switching to 100 percent clean energy.

When DeSantis was a three-term congressman representing Florida, the League of Conservation Voters rated his history of making good decisions on environmental matters at a mere two percent.

DeSantis’ contradictory words and deeds on environmental issues so upset members of Sierra Club Florida that they “condemned” DeSantis’ legislative record for the last several years.

“In his time as governor, Ron DeSantis hasn’t lived up to his rhetoric on the environment. He has failed on a number of campaign promises, ignored the advice of his own experts, and at times signed legislation in direct opposition to his commitments,” Sierra Club Florida wrote in a statement. His agenda “amounts to nothing more than lip service on the environment and the economy.”

Yet several of Florida’s top environmental nonprofits support DeSantis.

Politico reported last year that the Everglades Foundation, a long-time and influential nonprofit that works to keep the restoration of the River of Grass moving along, has been a “big supporter” of DeSantis.

“The organization often praises DeSantis for focusing on Everglades restoration,” Politico reporter Bruce Ritchie wrote.

He reported that Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg has called DeSantis a “true champion” of the environment.

“A governor has a tremendous bully pulpit on a variety of issues,” Eikenberg said to Ritchie. “He came into office and actually on day one — on the inauguration itself — he made it very clear this was going to be a priority.”

‘Cautiously hopeful’

Gil Smart of VoteWater, a clean-water advocacy group, is intrigued about the additional $750 million in annual revenue coming in the from the gambling agreement, or compact.

 Gil Smart
Bayles, Tom
Gil Smart

“We like the idea that some of the money from the Seminole compact can be used for water storage and treatment. We firmly believe we need additional land south of Lake Okeechobee to store and clean water from the lake if we're ever going to make damaging discharges a thing of the past," he said. "So maybe some of this money could be used for that. That would be a good thing.”

Smart said a problem is that there is no guarantee the money coming in from the compact will equal $750 million annually since it is based on what the Seminole Tribe of Florida makes each year from gambling.

It seems kind of hard to plan when you don't have any idea what your revenues are going to be,” he said. “Nonetheless, this appears to be a significant new source of funding for clean water projects. So let's just say we're cautiously hopeful.”


Indian Gaming Revenue Clearing Fund

Amount Allocated: 96% of revenue share payments.

Details: Funds are primarily used to support the Florida wildlife corridor including land purchases and conservation easements, and to manage uplands and remove invasive species.

For the Florida wildlife corridor: The lesser of 26.042% or $100 million annually, used for land acquisition within the corridor.

For upland management and invasive species removal: The lesser of 26.042% or $100 million annually, divided as follows:

Department of Environmental Protection: The lesser of 36% or $36 million, further subdivided for state park land management ($32 million) and local trail management ($4 million).

Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services: The lesser of 32% or $32 million for land management activities.

Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: The lesser of 32% or $32 million for land management, focusing on species like gopher tortoises and Florida panthers.

Conditions: Funds are designated strictly for the operation, maintenance, and enhancement of conservation efforts, ensuring long-term sustainability and protection of vital habitats.

Resilient Florida Trust Fund

Funded: The lesser of 26.042% or $100 million annually.

Details: Funds are used for implementing the Statewide Flooding and Sea Level Rise Resilience Plan.

Conditions: These funds are earmarked for projects that address the challenges posed by climate change, particularly flooding and sea level rise, enhancing the state's ability to mitigate and adapt to these environmental changes.

Water Protection and Sustainability Trust Fund

Funded: Remaining funds after other specified distributions.

Details: Projects that improve water quality, help control pollution, and ensure clean water resources for the future.

Conditions: The compact revenues could provide as much as $450 million in future years for this program.

Local Trail Management Grant Program

Funding: Subject to appropriation.

Details: The funds are allocated for assisting local governments with the operation and maintenance of trails within the Florida Greenways and Trails System. Expenses can include equipment purchases, necessary repairs for safety, and general maintenance like pressure washing, bush pruning, and debris clearing.

Conditions: Funds are not to be used for the planning, design, or construction of trails. 

Florida Wildlife Corridor Management Techniques

Funding: Subject to appropriation.

Details: The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is authorized to enter into voluntary agreements with private landowners to protect and restore water resources, manage wildlife habitats, and conserve native flora and soil. These agreements aim to maintain ecosystems beneficial for protected species like the Florida panther and gopher tortoise.

Conditions: The funds will enhance management beyond existing requirements.

Land Management Uniform Accounting Council

Funding: No specific allocation mentioned; general fund management for state agencies.

Details: The council is tasked to recommend the most efficient and effective use of funds for land management activities.

Conditions: The focus must be on upland management and invasive species removal.

Bayles, Tom

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Tom Bayles