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Florida's Legislature wraps up its annual budget session this week. Like other states with tight budgets, Florida is setting new spending priorities.
Environmental protection is one area that's seeing big cuts.
Driving west from Miami through the Everglades on Highway 41 — the Tamiami Trail — you can see federal dollars at work. Dan Kimball, superintendent of Everglades National Park, says he's excited about an $81 million project that will raise the road. For decades, it's acted like a dam, keeping water from flowing south through the Everglades.
Despite progress on the project, a new threat has emerged to Everglades restoration. It can be found 500 miles away in Tallahassee, where Florida's governor and Legislature are grappling with a $4 billion budget shortfall. As Gov. Rick Scott says, the shortfall is forcing them to make tough choices in many areas — including protecting the environment.
"We've got to make sure we spend the money we have, and the property that we own, we've got to take care of it as well as we can," Scott says. "Right now, it's a little harder because we're walking into a big budget deficit. This job requires you to prioritize how you spend your money."
Scott, a Republican, ran for governor promising he'd operate the state like a business. Since taking office, he's made clear that his priority is to reduce taxes and regulations for industry. One of the areas he's targeted for cuts is the environment.
Following Scott's lead, Florida's Republican-controlled Legislature is slashing some $30 million from Everglades restoration and eliminating funding for a number of other environmental programs — including a land conservation effort that's been in place for two decades.
The "Dark Ages"
Those actions have led environmentalists to worry Florida is returning to its "dark ages" — when the state's beaches, water and open land were viewed as commodities to be exploited.
At the Tropical Audubon Society headquarters in Miami, Director Laura Reynolds unscrews a time capsule. It's filled with pictures, letters and artifacts placed inside for a purpose. "A lot of people in the community that work on environmental issues were so frustrated with what's going on in the state right now that we thought, 'We need to send a message to the future,' " Reynolds says.
It's not just the cut in spending on environmental programs that has Reynolds and other activists upset. It's also a pro-business, anti-regulation agenda aimed at restraining the ability of the state and local governments to control growth and development. At Scott's suggestion, the Legislature has largely dismantled a state agency that for 25 years has served as a check on sprawl and runaway development.
Possible Effects On Tourism
Kirk Fordham, head of the Everglades Foundation, has been working to convince legislators and the governor that dismantling regulations to help developers and the construction industry is shortsighted. He warns that loosening environmental protections may endanger the state's largest industry: tourism.
"That's really the backbone of our state's economy," he says. "We don't have a Silicon Valley. We don't have a steel or auto industry in Florida. Our economy is so intertwined with our natural resources and our environment that if we allow that to deteriorate, then we're really sacrificing our future economic growth."
Florida's former governor and three-term senator, Bob Graham, says he believes the state's elected leaders may be losing sight of some important core values long defended by both political parties.
In a recent op-ed piece published statewide, he called on politicians to reassess their plans to downgrade environmental protections. "The consequence of doing this is to go back to the era where we looked at Florida and just said it's not really worth very much," says Graham. "If we don't like what it is, let's change it and let's put it on the auction block."
Despite the pleas of the former governor and others, Florida lawmakers are finalizing a budget that reorders state priorities — one that puts the need to promote development and growth before environmental protection.