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    Rally decries budgets for Everglades

    Environmentalists protest the president's and Legislature's proposals.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001


    President Bush's proposed budget for Everglades restoration this year is more than $50-million short of what was planned when Congress approved the project last fall, according to environmental groups upset about the shortfall.

    Meanwhile, to the consternation of the president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, the state Legislature has yet to figure out where the state's share of Everglades funding will come from. Environmental groups held a Tallahassee rally Tuesday to protest the problem.

    "Welcome to the future of the Everglades," said Charles Lee, Audubon of Florida senior vice president. "Every year for the duration of the project -- 20 years -- we'll be facing a fight in the budgetary process."

    The $7.8-billion plan calls for removing some levees and canals, injecting water deep underground for later use, turning some limestone quarries into big reservoirs and raising the Tamiami Trail to allow the water to flow naturally beneath it.

    The project is supposed to restore the River of Grass to a semblance of its former glory as well as provide enough drinking water for South Florida's population to double.

    As approved by Congress and the Legislature last year, the plan calls for the federal and state governments to split the cost of the work 50-50.

    The original schedule said that the federal share for 2002 would be $95-million, according to Audubon officials. But the proposed budget released by the White House Monday included only $37-million specifically earmarked for the Everglades.

    Lee called the $58-million shortfall "a fairly loud alarm bell."

    And Shannon Estenoz, co-chair of the Everglades Coalition, said that the funding problem is particularly troublesome because some parts of the project already are slipping as much as a year behind the schedule Congress approved.

    "If the funding levels in the budget prevent these agencies from meeting the schedule, then it's a problem," Estenoz said.

    Michael Davis, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Everglades restoration director, contended there is no budget shortfall for the project. The original schedule approved by Congress assumed the restoration would move faster than it is, he said. For now, $37-million is all that the federal agencies involved in the project can use, he said.

    "We think we got what we need there," Davis said.

    At the Tallahassee rally, the governor's former environmental policy adviser, J. Allison DeFoor, suggested that the White House failed to fully fund the Everglades because of the problems in state funding.

    "It obviously is the first shot back over the bow in response to our lessening of the commitment," DeFoor said.

    Environmental groups joined forces with Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney and Brevard County Commission Chairwoman Sue Carlson on the Capitol steps Tuesday to decry a Senate-passed budget that would take money out of the Preservation 2000 lands programs to pay the state's share of Everglades restoration, rather than using general revenue as the governor had promised.

    Using $100-million of P2000 money to pay for the Everglades frees up general revenue money for education, medical care and other needs, senators said. But Gov. Bush has complained that it endangers the fragile agreement that the state has with federal officials to share the costs of restoration, including design and implementation work which by law cannot be paid for with P2000 money.

    "Fiscal responsibility is more important than saving sacred cows," Senate President John McKay, R-Bradenton, said in a statement his office issued to defend the diversion.

    "This action will compromise absolutely no project of Preservation 2000 or Florida Forever," he said. "Any assertion to the contrary is bogus."

    The governor was not at the rally, but issued a statement supporting full funding for the lands programs, saying natural resources "fuel our economy and add to our quality of life."

    The House version of the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, keeps full funding for the land acquisition programs and pays for the Everglades from general revenue. The two chambers will form a conference committee to resolve that and other spending differences.

    - Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.

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