Raids on fund nettle faithful
By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
LAKELAND -- Loren and Kathryn Unser have visited nearly every state park in Florida, from the sugar dunes of the Panhandle's Topsail Hill to the bug-infested swamps of the Everglades. Although they are both 82, they still love to hike the trails and take pictures.
A few years ago, when the state sold bonds for a program called Preservation 2000 to pay for acquiring environmentally sensitive land, the Unsers invested thousands of dollars in it, figuring that buying the bonds was a way to feed their passion for nature.
Now the couple is furious that the Legislature is dipping into that Preservation 2000 fund for other purposes -- for the second time in two years.
"It's supposed to be used strictly for preserving the environment," said Loren Unser, a retired insurance executive from Illinois. For the Legislature to do otherwise, he said, is "like going to Sears to buy a refrigerator, and they bring out a washing machine."
The Unsers are writing letters to Gov. Jeb Bush and other state officials objecting to the move, which is expected to be approved by the Legislature as part of the vote on the $49-billion budget today.
But Ben Watkins, director of the state Division of Bond Finance, said there is nothing the Unsers or any other bondholder can do to stop it.
"Tell them to call their legislators. Other than that, they don't have any legal claim," Watkins said. "The bondholders have no legal right to care at all what the state is doing with the money."
Preservation 2000, a $3-billion program launched a decade ago, has protected more than 1-million acres of pristine springs, swamps, forests, beaches and scrub from development. To raise money to buy the land, the state sold bonds and promised to pay them off using money collected from the documentary stamp taxes levied on each real estate transaction.
The politically popular program has earned good reviews nationwide, so much so that officials from North Carolina met with Bush last month to learn how to set up their own version.
The Unsers say they bought their Preservation 2000 bonds because their travels to hike the park system convinced them that preserving Florida's environment was a worthwhile cause.
"We believe in it," Unser said.
Yet lately lawmakers have been treating Preservation 2000 less like a cause than a cookie jar. Last year the Legislature took $75-million out of Preservation 2000, stuck it in an Everglades program and then used the Everglades money to plug holes in the education and social services budget.
The governor opposed the raid, arguing, "There's ample resources to do this the right way." But it passed over his objections.
Last year's raid on Preservation 2000 cost the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which covers the Tampa Bay area, $20-million in land-buying money, said Fritz Musselmann, who oversees such acquisitions for the district, commonly called Swiftmud.
That amount could have protected a lot of land vital to the area's water resources, he said.
"We can go out into the rural areas and buy land for $1,000 to $2,000 an acre," Musselmann said.
Lawmakers promised to put the $75-million back this year, but they did not. They also promised not to raid the fund again. But now they plan to do just that, taking $100-million this time. They plan to take the money from the Preservation 2000 debt reserve and use it to pay off the debt service on the bonds, freeing up money for health care, education and other expenses.
Activists from such groups as Audubon of Florida and the Nature Conservancy contend the move is a shell game, moving money around to cover the holes left by the $262-million corporate tax cut pushed by legislative leaders as a way to stimulate the economy.
"It is an irony that money set aside to save natural areas is being diverted to pay for luring new growth and development to the state," said Nature Conservancy lobbyist Sue Mullins.
State Rep. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, oversees environmental spending in the House. She tried to stop the raid by enlisting the support of her fellow House members. She said 103 signed a pledge to oppose raiding Preservation 2000.
But their good intentions were pre-empted by the budget deal cut by House and Senate leaders and the governor before the start of the special session.
"Unfortunately, the decision on that $100-million was made as part of the deal," Dockery said. "It was made abundantly clear to me that it was not going to be undone."
Efforts to reach Senate Majority Leader Jim King, R-Jacksonville, and Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, for comment were not successful.
Dockery said she will push for a new law that would from now on "keep the lid on the cookie jar." But the successive raids on Preservation 2000 have soured the Unsers on the state's bonds. Don't count on them to buy any new ones -- not even from the new $1-billion bond issue that has been proposed to restore the Everglades.
The Unsers' attitude is understandable, said Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida.
"There's a kind of a moral covenant that's not being followed here," he said. "People who are helping to underwrite these programs, they have good reason to feel Florida has broken its promises."
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From the Times state desk
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