By JIM TURNER, THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
JUPITER, FL -- Gov. Rick Scott on Monday rolled out a $1 billion environmental blueprint for Florida, the latest piece of his re-election platform.
The plan, announced during campaign appearances in Stuart and Jupiter, lines up in places with a proposed constitutional amendment that will go before voters this fall and is intended to dedicate such funding in the state budget. However, Scott remains undecided on the ballot issue.
"I understand the one side of committing dollars to this, and I understand the other side, that I want to make sure we have money for schools, for poverty programs, for health care and all those things," Scott said Monday after the Jupiter stop.
The Florida Democratic Party quickly called Scott's environmental proposal an "election year gimmick."
Meanwhile, backers of the "Florida Water and Land Legacy" constitutional-amendment drive applauded Scott for recognizing the importance of water and land conservation. Yet amendment backers maintained that their initiative will do more for preservation of the state.
Unlike the proposed amendment, Scott's 10-year funding proposal wouldn't lock lawmakers into having to approve money in the state budget for such things as land conservation, protecting water resources and helping the Everglades.
Scott's proposal includes investing $50 million a year for alternative water-supply projects and another $50 million a year for natural springs restoration.
Scott's plan calls for increasing penalties on polluters, creating a position in the governor's office focused on efforts to move water south through the Everglades rather than east and west, making commitments to protect the Florida Keys and Apalachicola Bay, lobbying Congress to provide matching funds for South Florida water projects and committing $150 million-a-year for Florida Forever to preserve such things as sensitive lands.
Will Abberger, campaign manager of the Florida Water and Land Legacy effort, released a statement in support of Scott's conservation efforts, but maintained that the proposed amendment would dedicate the needed funding.
"We agree with Governor Scott that we need to invest in protecting Florida’s water quality, the Everglades, and our treasured natural areas," Abberger said in the statement. “A 'Yes' vote for Amendment 1 does just that. Amendment 1 will provide a sustained commitment to protect water quality, natural areas, and wildlife for generations to come."
The amendment seeks to set aside 33 percent of the state's documentary stamp tax revenues --- fees paid when real estate is sold --- for 20 years to acquire conservation and recreation lands, manage existing lands, protect lands that are critical for water supply and restore degraded natural systems.
The amendment, which requires approval from 60 percent of voters to pass, could generate $10 billion over its life, the group says.
The idea for the amendment was spawned as funding diminished for the Florida Forever program. Florida Forever, which uses bonds backed with revenue from the documentary stamps, authorizes lawmakers to spend up to $300 million a year for preservation.
Scott's environmental rollout, under the banner of "Let's Keep Florida Beautiful," is the latest piece of Scott's re-election platform to be accompanied by a series of statewide appearances that have dominated his schedule since the end of the legislative session in May.
Eric Draper, Audubon Florida executive director, said there were "rough challenges" for environmentalists from Scott in his first years in office, but it appears the governor "saw he was getting positive reviews on Everglades issues."
"I think you have to be pro-environment to be governor of Florida," said Draper, a member of the Amendment 1 steering committee who stood behind Scott at the Jupiter campaign stop Monday.
The funding plan comes after a legislative session in which lawmakers allocated more than $220 million for efforts to clean the water in South Florida. Lawmakers also approved $30 million for the springs this past session, up from $10 million in 2013.
But Democrats were not impressed by the latest piece of Scott's platform.
"In this latest election year gimmick, Scott is promising something for every region of our state, but the truth is that he’s always been on the polluters' side," Florida Democratic Party spokesman Joshua Karp said. "Rick Scott campaigning on the environment is like the Grinch campaigning for Christmas."
The campaign for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, who supports the proposed constitutional amendment, called Scott's plan "a shameful attempt to cover up for the fact that Rick Scott spent four years selling Florida's environment to the highest bidder."
Scott said Monday that the state was limited on how it could spend money as it came out of the recession, but that has changed as Florida's economy has improved. Crist, then a Republican, was governor when the recession hammered Florida.
"We've turned around the economy so we can invest," Scott said. "It's hard to invest dollars when there is no money in the state budget.
Scott's environmental tour is expected to visit Naples and Miami on Tuesday, with additional stops planned for Boca Raton, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, and West Palm Beach.