Crist budget vetoes restore land-buying program

By Bruce Ritchie

Saying that the state’s land-buying program is “near and dear” to himself, Gov. Charlie Crist this afternoon announced he is vetoing a deep cut to the Florida Forever Program by the Legislature earlier this month.

“I believe in preserving Florida’s natural beauty for future generations, not just for the beauty itself but also for our economic vitality,” Crist told reporters.

The Florida Forever program has acquired more than 500,000 acres for state parks, state forests, and water managemetn district lands since it was begun in 2000, succeeding the Preservation 2000 program launched in 1990.

The Legislature earlier this month voted to cut Florida Forever to address a $2.3 billion revenue shortfall caused by the slowing economy. Crist said the Legislature approved an additional $300 million in cuts above what he had proposed in December.

The governor today thanked legislative leaders for the difficult task of trying to balance the budget. But he said his vetoes will keep the state budget in balance by about $210 million.

The Legislature’s cut would have prevented the state from issuing $250 million in bonds under Florida Forever. Crist said to maintain the program, he only had to restore $2.3 million in general revenue spending that was cut by the Legislature.

That amount of money to restore the program “was something we could handle and we could do,” Crist said.

Environmentalists hailed the governor for maintaining the state’s land-buying efforts that date back to the 1980s.

“The governor has upheld the tradition that goes back to (former Gov.) Bob Graham in making sure that Florida protects our environmentally-sensitive lands,” said Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon of Florida.

Crist said he was not vetoing two bills that environmentalists wanted him to block to prevent sweeps of environmental trust funds. HB 5113 transfers $8 million from the Water Management Lands Trust Fund to general revenue and HB 5115 transfers $11 million from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to general revenue.

While not directly addressing Florida Forever or the trust funds bills, House Speaker Ray Sansom and Senate President Jeff Atwater said today difficult budget challenges remain for the next fiscal year. Sansom said the House thought it was prudent to reduce spending in excess of the projected deficit to keep the budget in balance.

“As we move beyond today’s budget vetoes, the difficult challenges we will face in balancing the budget for 2009-10 remains,” Sansom said in a statement.

Photo of St. Marks River State Park, purchased in 2005 under Florida Forever.

Photo and text copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie.