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  • Legislature 2001

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    Senators propose to raid a fund that purchases wild Florida lands

    Senators, hard-pressed to write their budget, want $100-million from the Preservation 2000 program.

    By DIANE RADO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Facing the tightest budget crunch in a decade, state senators have decided they want to dip into a fund set aside to buy pristine lands in Florida.

    The unprecedented move, made over strenuous objections from Gov. Jeb Bush and statewide environmental groups, created a stir in the capital Thursday and set up a showdown between Bush and the Republican-controlled Florida Senate.

    The governor warned senators at a breakfast meeting that he opposed taking money out of Preservation 2000, a land-buying program that has preserved a million acres of Florida land since 1990. "I urge caution on that. I'll oppose it. I just ask you to be careful," Bush said.

    A few hours later, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to take $100-million from Preservation 2000 and use it on Everglades restoration. That freed up general revenue dollars that had been budgeted for the Everglades. Senators used that money for public school programs and health care for poor, elderly people.

    "What this amendment does, quite frankly, is put people first," said Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach, who has struggled the last few weeks as chairman of the Senate's budget committee on health and social service programs. The state faces a nearly $1-billion shortfall in the Medicaid program, stemming from deficits in prior years, and unexpected expenses for 2001-2002 because of a rise of Medicaid clients.

    But some senators said lawmakers shouldn't try to get through a tough budget situation by raiding Preservation 2000.

    "It's a breach of contract with the citizens of Florida," said Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, who pointed out that voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 1998 that made land conservation a top priority and allowed the state to continue selling bonds to purchase lands.

    But Democrats and Republicans alike voted to take the Preservation 2000 funds, even Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, who is considered an ally of environmental groups. He shepherded the "Florida Forever" program -- the successor to Preservation 2000 -- through the Senate in 1999.

    "I'm not scared of anybody or anything when it comes to protecting the environment," Latvala told his colleagues. However, the Preservation 2000 program had a cash balance of $272-million as of Jan. 31, Latvala said. He and other senators insisted that no land-buying project would be affected by taking away $100-million.

    But that was challenged later in the day by David Struhs, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, and a coalition of environmental groups. Struhs and his staff said projects would indeed be affected if the Legislature removes the $100-million.

    Senate Majority Leader Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said five weeks remain in the session, plenty of time to findwhether there is a surplus in Preservation 2000. If all the money has been used, "we can back away," King said.

    But the move to take money out of Preservation 2000 appears to have powerful support from Senate President John McKay, a Bradenton Republican. A letter written by Gov. Bush to McKay on March 6 indicates that the two were talking at least three weeks ago about Preservation 2000.

    Bush was trying to dissuade McKay even then.

    "Our conservation land acquisition programs are a model for the nation, vital to preserving environmentally sensitive lands and provide permanence to ensure a continued quality of life for our residents and visitors," Bush wrote to McKay.

    The $47.7-billion budget approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday does not contain the tax cuts sought by Bush. It also does not include a tuition increase for university students, which Bush supports.

    The House budget committee takes up its version of a state budget today. The full House and Senate will then vote on their budgets and negotiate a single version.

    Bush can veto the Legislature's spending plan.

    -- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

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