The Republican–controlled Legislature will be tasked with an unexpected job: deciding whether to allocate funds for environmental causes championed by the governor.
The environment wasn’t a priority under former Governor Rick Scott. Florida’s new governor, Ron DeSantis, is taking a different approach - and raising eyebrows - as he seeks massive dollars to clean up the state’s water ways.
Now it's up to the Legislature to consider his funding request.
Two days after he was sworn into office, Gov. DeSantis signed an executive order. Among other things, it calls for $2.5 billion over the next four years to help solve environmental concerns.
“That represents $1 billion more than the previous 4 years,” he told a crowd in Bonita Springs. Specifically, DeSantis wants $625 million to focus on water quality and Everglades restoration. He immediately touted his plan on a visit to coastal areas that have been ravaged by red tide. His proposal quickly found support from business and environmental groups.
“We have a great expression - never let a good crisis go to waste," said Rob Moher, president of Conservancy of Southwest Florida. "I think this governor’s just coming at the right time and has a coalition, a broad coalition of support regardless of political party, regardless of what sector you’re in – private, non-profit. We all have to pull together in the same direction.”
DeSantis has taken other action like appointing new members to the state’s regional water boards in an attempt to remove politics from the decision making. He told reporters at the Capitol he’s following through on comments made during his campaign that Florida’s water quality issues need to be addressed.
“All you had to do was go down to southwest Florida. You see the empty restaurants, you see the empty beaches, you see what’s happened with the algae and the red tide, which I think maybe had been exacerbated by what happens out of Lake Okeechobee," DeSantis said. "So this needed to be dealt with, and so I came in and basically just did what I said.”
But will lawmakers go along with his sweeping plans as they craft the state budget?
Part of the governor’s proposal would require the state to create a matching grant program for converting septic systems to sewer. Local governments would put up the matching money, potentially leading property owners to abandon their septic tanks. House Speaker Jose Oliva (R-Miami Lakes) thinks that might not be the best solution.
“I think we have to find ways that are not a massive imposition on either property owners or local governments or the state government but is truly a combination of everyone having some skin in the game,” Oliva said at the Capitol.
Plus, some lawmakers are pushing their own environmental bills that could compete with the governor’s plans.
Senate President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) says he’s interested in an initiative out of Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota for red tide research, especially since he’s encountered red tide for much of his life.
"I’ve watched the impact on the communities just like Anna Maria where my family first moved in the beginning," Galvano said. "While we have provided research for red tide in the past, it’s time to collaborate more and look towards solutions to mitigate.”
Galvano says he’s pleased the governor is making water quality a priority. “We have to realize that the governor has the ability to make recommendations to the legislature, and we are taking those recommendations seriously, but we have to go through our own budget process.”
In other words, it’s up to state lawmakers to decide whether it’s feasible to fund the governor’s environmental budget requests.
News Service of Florida and WGCU contributed to this report.