Rivals for Florida governor endorse land-buying

By Michael Peltier
News Service of Florida
For a mere $15 million, Florida lawmakers can secure $300 million for the state’s Florida Forever program, a bargain even during cash-strapped times, the top contenders to replace Gov. Charlie Crist said Tuesday in a bit of campaign camaraderie.

Funding for the state’s premiere land-buying program is not a partisan issue, at least in the upcoming governor’s race. Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Attorney General Bill McCollum urged lawmakers to set aside documentary stamp tax revenues to provide funding for the Florida Forever program.

“By these purchases, we’re investing in the future of Florida and protecting the environment, whether it’s water quality or protecting its animals or providing park land,” Sink said.

Despite a tight budget, backers including former Gov. Bob Martinez say the state must continue making investments in sensitive lands. The purchases have an added benefit because they are generally paid to Florida landowners, who reinvest their incomes elsewhere in the state.

Lawmakers last year pulled funding for the program and agency heads have not called for its replacement in their initial budget requests for the upcoming fiscal year. In years past, the program provided up to $300 million for a host of purchases of sensitive lands.

Land-buying advocates are trying to drum up support as committees begin to take a look at budget requests for 2010. Agencies were required by Sept. 15 to submit tentative spending plans for the upcoming year.

Andy McLeod, director of government affairs for The Nature Conservancy, said having both gubernatorial candidates behind the move would provide momentum.

“We’re thrilled they’re here with us to promote this,” McLeod said. “These are the highest priority conservation lands.”
The Department of Environmental Protection, which runs the program, did not include it in its proposed budget for the coming year. Instead, DEP asked lawmakers to again earmark $50 million toward Everglades restoration efforts.

Backers hope Crist’s past support for Florida Forever coupled with an election year will work in their favor. It seemed to on Tuesday as both McCollum and Sink took time to say a few words.

“I can’t tell you of anything that is more important to Florida’s long term health than preserving the lands that are so precious to us,” McCollum said.

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