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    Rerouting preservation dollars causes an outcry

    Environmentalists are outraged that the state budget plan takes $100-million from a land preservation fund.

    By ALISA ULFERTS and CRAIG PITTMAN
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 26, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- Environmental activists sounded the alarm Thursday over what they called the theft of land conservation dollars that helped cement a budget deal.

    The $49-billion budget deal that lawmakers will consider in a special session next week includes a plan to take $100-million from a land conservation program and use it to help pay for other such things as education and health care.

    Although budget planners say they hope to use at least some of the money for other environmental projects, activists worry that nothing in the deal guarantees that.

    "We're trying to mobilize to stop this thing," said Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida. "We're real surprised by this."

    Environmental groups thought they had a commitment not to raid environmental funds again. Lawmakers took $75-million from a land buying fund last year.

    The Legislature failed to adopt a budget when its regular session ended March 22. The special session that begins Monday will focus on the budget, an update of education laws, the job duties of the new state chief financial officer and some smaller matters.

    Rep. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, oversees environmental spending for the House. She said she was unaware of the plan to divert the funds until recently and hopes to convince fellow lawmakers that the money should be used for environmental programs.

    "We don't want to break the budget deal but we want to make sure we don't break the bond covenants," said Dockery. Those covenants are the state's promise to use the money for conservation when it borrowed the money. Breaking that promise could affect the state's credit rating, Dockery said.

    The Legislature faces a July 1 deadline to pass the budget. Twice already a deal on another massive bill, the update of the state's education laws, fell through at the last minute, and some Capitol observers wonder if the budget deal will last long enough for lawmakers to approve it.

    When the idea to use environmental money for other purposes first surfaced last year, 89 members of the House signed a petition opposing it, and Dockery is asking all House members to sign it again. If that happens, it could be enough to sink the budget deal.

    Gov. Jeb Bush on Thursday said simply that all deals for the session are still solid.

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