Bush plan siphons trust funds
By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- In public, Gov. Jeb Bush is touting the millions he plans to spend on the Everglades next year even though money is tight.
But quietly -- so quietly that even some of his own top environmental officials didn't know it -- Bush has proposed taking away one of the most reliable sources of funding for dozens of state environmental programs next year.
Some key state functions could end up on financially shaky ground, including those managing park lands, cleaning up hazardous waste spills and funneling money to communities to build housing for the needy.
For years, those programs and many others have been funded by a tax on loans and real estate transactions called documentary stamps. A decade ago, Florida lawmakers decided that because real estate development affects Florida's natural systems, the tax should pay for environmental programs and affordable housing.
Lawmakers wanted to make sure that funding would be there every year, not subject to bureaucratic infighting and political whims.
Now, Bush wants to undo that. Florida's brisk real estate market makes the documentary stamp tax a huge source of revenue. Next year, it will bring in an estimated $1.6-billion. Bush's budget shifts about $577-million of that into the state's general revenue fund, a pot of money that's available for anything lawmakers want to spend it on.
The massive shift of funds, affecting about a dozen environmental and affordable housing trust funds, was buried in the budget's fine print. The Legislature can follow Bush's recommendations or ignore them.
Under Bush's plan, two programs would still get a steady stream of dedicated real estate tax money: the popular Florida Forever and Preservation 2000 conservation land-buying programs. They will get about $340-million because the programs depend on bonds and must be supported by a dedicated fund.
"We're not touching that," Bush said. "We shouldn't, and we can't."
As for the dozens of other environmental programs, Bush has set aside money to pay for many of them in his budget. But the programs would be vulnerable to cuts as state lawmakers scramble to find money for education, social services and other needs.
Among the vulnerable programs: Fighting exotic water weeds, which choke lakes; game wardens, who catch illegal hunters; research on sea turtles and salt water fish; cleaning up lakes and rivers; restoring damaged coral reefs; and shoring up beaches.
Affordable housing programs would get $60-million less this year under Bush's budget, according to Gene Adams of the Florida Association of Realtors. That means counties will get fewer dollars to help people afford a home.
The scope of Bush's plan is unprecedented in modern Florida. Each year, governors and lawmakers raid trust funds, but Bush's proposal would take nearly all of the documentary stamp tax revenue out of environmental and affordable housing trust funds. If the Legislature goes along, the programs will have to beg for money each year.
"Every year, they will approve less and less money for environmental programs and propose more and more for other budget issues of the state," predicted Eric Draper, a lobbyist for the Florida Audubon Society.
Anyone who buys property, refinances a mortgage or gets a loan pays the tax, which is $1.05 for every $100 of value.
On a $100,000 mortgage, for instance, the tax would be $1,050. In 1992, two factions usually at odds -- homebuilders and Realtors on one side, and environmentalists on the other -- came together to support a 20-cent increase in the tax.
"We agreed to a tax increase to fund both a fine environmental program and a fine affordable housing program -- it is the model for the country -- and now, we're breaking faith with that," said Adams, of the Realtors Association.
"There will always be something a little more important than affordable housing. The counties will get less affordable housing money in the short term, and in the long term it remains to be seen how much they'll get at all."
Bush and some leading Republican lawmakers say the trust funds tie their hands too much. With so much money funneled to trust funds and earmarked for specific purposes, lawmakers can't easily shift money to different priorities when they want to.
That was exactly the idea behind dedicating real estate taxes to environmental and affordable housing programs: to make sure that the money would be there, year after year.
"That is money that's paid as a result of development, and it should be used to mitigate the effects of development," said Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, vice chairwoman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
Eva Armstrong, who manages the Division of State Lands, said she wasn't aware of the proposed fund shift until late last week. She said it wasn't brought up at budget meetings she attended at her agency, the Department of Environmental Protection.
"We don't understand the whole picture yet," Armstrong said. "I don't know that it impacts our ability to buy land, as long as the Legislature gives us the money to do so."
Fighting exotic water weeds
Catching illegal hunters
Researching sea turtles and salt water fish
Cleaning up lakes and rivers
Restoring damaged coral reefs
Shoring up beaches
Providing affordable housing
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire