By Jim Turner
TALLAHASSEE — Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson is seeking $300 million for a program designed to keep swaths of rural land from commercial and residential development, triple the amount vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis this year. Meanwhile, the Department of Environmental Protection is asking lawmakers for a slight increase next year in funding for the separate Florida Forever land-conservation program.
In outlining proposals by his Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for the 2024 legislative session, Simpson on Tuesday said the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program is a way for farmers and ranchers to continue operating amid the pressures of rising land values and a rapidly growing population.
“When you think about what farming of the future is going to look like … are we going to have farmland available?” Simpson told members of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee.
“The only way farmers succeed in Florida is by being much more efficient than our counterparts,” Simpson added. “We can’t beat other countries right now, because they have lesser infrastructure costs than we do. But we should be able to compete in all other respects.”
The program stirred some controversy this year when DeSantis vetoed $100 million that lawmakers had earmarked for it in the state budget.
Simpson said after Tuesday’s meeting he’s received “great feedback” from DeSantis’ office on the $300 million proposal, while acknowledging he hadn’t expected the funding for the current year to be vetoed. “The governor has to do his job. We’re going to do ours,” Simpson said.
While DeSantis vetoed the $100 million for this year, his office has pointed to the program receiving $300 million in the 2022-2023 fiscal year, which ended June 30.
As of Tuesday, about $100 million from the 2022-2023 allocation remained unspent, and Simpson said he expects those dollars won’t be enough to continue the program through the 2024-2025 fiscal year, as agricultural landowners have identified about $2 billion worth of property they’d like considered for the program.
The program focuses on buying conservation easements, which generally allow landowners to continue using their property while preventing development.
Meanwhile, the Department of Environmental Protection wants lawmakers during the upcoming legislative session to approve setting aside $125 million for Florida Forever. That would be $25 million more than required by law. The legislative session will start in January.
Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Shawn Hamilton told the subcommittee that 97 percent of the nearly 175,000 acres acquired through Florida Forever since 2019 are within a planned state wildlife corridor.
“It’s important to note by acquiring more conservation lands, especially those contiguous lands, it’s increasing the volumes of water capable of being filtered naturally, recharging our aquifers, and also increasing the habitat for wildlife,” Hamilton said.
Overall, the budget for the current fiscal year, which began July 1, included more than $976 million for conservation and recreation land acquisitions. The bulk of the funding, $850 million, was for land in the planned 18 million-acre statewide wildlife corridor.
The Department of Environmental Protection also is seeking $740.5 million for Everglades restoration, up from $694 million in the current budget year. The total includes a nearly $200 million increase — to $550 million — for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
Another $305 million is sought for targeted water-quality improvements that include $100 million for the Indian River Lagoon.