Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed $91.3 billion fiscal year 2020 budget request appropriates $100 million for the Florida Forever conservation land acquisition program, the highest dedicated annual allocation in the four years the fund has been accruing revenues.
DeSantis and his Cabinet unanimously agreed to spend $2.54 million in Florida Forever money to purchase and preserve 399 acres of environmentally sensitive land spanning two parcels in Lake and Hamilton counties.
The state will buy 83.4 acres consisting of five lots on Lake Norris near Paisley in Lake County within the 58,300-acre Wekiva-Ocala Greenway Florida Forever project for $540,000, and the 316-acre Hardee Spring property, including 1.5 miles of frontage along the Withlacoochee River within a 9,877-acre Florida Forever project adjacent to Twin Rivers State Forest, on River Error Farms in Hamilton County for $2 million.
Audubon Florida Executive Director Julie Wraithmell called the acquisition “great news" for Florida.
”Audubon is excited to see Gov. DeSantis advancing the pro-water agenda laid out with his recent executive order and today’s budget recommendations,” Wraithmell said in a statement. “Water quality and quantity challenges are facing all corners of Florida, and these recommendations improve the outlook for water resources from America’s Everglades to North Florida’s springs, and the Indian River Lagoon to Apalachicola.”
The $2.54 million did not come from DeSantis’ proposed spending plan, but from this year’s budget, which also earmarks $100 million for Florida Forever – not, however, by the direction of former Gov. Rick Scott or the Legislature, but by a court order issued last June by Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson.
Voters approved Florida Forever as Constitutional Amendment 1 in 2014. The measure requires the state to set aside one-third of revenue from a state tax on documentary stamps annually for 20 years to acquire conservation lands. The fund accrues up to $300 million a year.
Before voters approved the Florida Forever program, several state-financed conservation land-buying programs preceded it, including Preservation 2000 established by Republican Gov. Bob Martinez in 1991, and the Land Acquisition Trust Fund which, by 2015, had collected more than $740 million.
But a provision in the state’s General Appropriations Act authorizes lawmakers to transfer “unappropriated cash balances from specified trust funds” to the general and budget stabilization funds to plug budget holes and provide tax relief.
Transfer and plug they did. Of the $740 million in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, $88 million survived budget sweeps to be spent on conservation efforts.
The pattern persisted even after Florida Forever was created. In 2016, the first year the fund had accrued money, the Legislature pulled $197 million of its $237 million and shifted it into the general fund; $50 million was spent on land and water conservation that year.
Only $15 million in Florida Forever money was spent to purchase land in 2017.
In 2018, after lawmakers swept $140 million from the fund for other purposes, Dodson’s ruling ordered the Legislature to spend the money as intended and $100 million was committed to land acquisition, which is where the money for this week's acquisition came from.
DeSantis, who has earmarked $625 million for Everglades restoration and other water-related issues in his budget request, said he wants to wean the Legislature of its fund-sweeping addiction, not only from Florida Forever but from other funds, most notably the William E. Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
His proposed budget includes less than $30 million in sweeps from trusts. For the first time in 20 years, none of that re-appropriated money will come from the Sadowski fund.
Approved by voters in a 1992 Constitutional amendment ballot measure, Sadowski is funded by a 20-cent surcharge for every $100 paid on real estate transactions. According to a December Revenue Estimating Conference forecast, the surcharge generated $352 million in 2018.
During the early 2000s housing boom, trust fund revenues grew. In 2001, legislators began diverting millions from the fund for other purposes.
A 2018 Senate Community Affairs Committee analysis determined that since 2001, more than $2.2 billion in Sadowski money has been funneled into the general fund, enough to subsidize nearly 177,000 new homes, according to the Florida Housing Corp., the non-profit that administers the fund.