DeSantis ‘Bold’ Environmental Plan Called Tame by Florida Democrats, Costly by GOP Budget Hawks

Ron DeSantisRon DeSantis

In his first 60 days in office, Gov. Ron DeSantis said his administration has issued “bold” challenges to “champion” environmental protection, education reform and revamp health care, including a proposed state-sanctioned wholesale import program that could dramatically cut prescription pharmaceutical costs.

These initiatives are among the legislative priorities lawmakers must return to him in the form of approved bills to sign, DeSantis said Tuesday, kicking off the 60-day legislative session with a 25-minute State of the State address.

In emphasizing early policy achievements and in outlining his goals for the coming year, DeSantis noted that progress is being made across many fronts despite the state dealing with a pressing urgency in North Florida, where it must shoulder the burden for Hurricane Michael recovery without assurance from Congress on when it will approve a federal assistance package.

“This is just the beginning,” DeSantis told a joint session of the Legislature. “Now is the time to be bold.”

It was “a meaty, substantive speech,” said Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, noting he appreciated DeSantis’ “tone that he intended to work with the Legislature and respects the Legislature.”

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said DeSantis’ commitment to environment and education is “welcome” and “on target,” before adding, “but some messaging gives me pause.”

In fact, not everyone is enthusiastic about the new governor’s call to “be bold.” Florida Democrats say his environmental initiative is not bold enough while Republican budget critics are questioning its price tag.

Gibson said there are “ominous signs” that some of DeSantis’ “proposed solutions” in his environmental plan “really aren’t new at all. Many of them are sewing divisiveness.”

DeSantis’ $625 million environmental budget request, the first allocation in a four-year $2.5 billion Everglades restoration and water protection initiative — a $1 billion boost from the state’s existing plan — is not new nor bold, Gibson said, because it doesn’t restore funding for mandatory septic-to-sewer conversion.

DeSantis wants to boost state funding to accelerate construction of the next phase of the $1.6 billion federal Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee.

Gibson and others maintain it would be less expensive and more effective for the state to increase funding for Legacy Florida’s septic-to-sewer conversions in coastal areas and near lagoons.

Legacy Florida is a component of the 2014 voter-approved Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative. It sets aside up to $200 million a year for Everglades restoration, $50 million to protect natural springs and $5 million for Lake Apopka.

Its septic-to-sewer conversion plan outlines a 50-50 state funding match with local governments to build wastewater systems and replace up to 2.6 million septic tanks statewide.

But state legislators have not earmarked money for the program, which has been subjected to budget sweeps. In 2016, Gov. Rick Scott nixed a septic-to-sewer conversion budget proposal, making it a voluntary program rather than one that would be mandatory in sensitive watershed and coastal areas.

DeSantis has issued an executive order directing the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to re-establish a matching grant program, but Gibson said this should be an emphasis, not a side objective, and it should receive more funding to lower costs for those who must install sewers.

The proposal may also face challenges from budget bottom-liners, Galvano said, especially since Hurricane Michael recovery is going to cost at least $750 million more than DeSantis anticipated in his $1.9 billion budget request.

“The governor has put out some big numbers. We will have to go through the budget process to find out what is realistic,” he said, adding his $625 million request “is pushing it a bit, considering the challenges we have with Hurricane Michael.”

The House will be eying proposed expenditures in the governor’s budget request carefully as well, promised Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Gardens.

“We think there is a lot of spending in the budget that is unnecessary spending,” he told reporters after DeSantis’ speech. “We’re going to be looking at everything” to “justify its existence” in the budget.

John Haughey is a contributor covering Florida news.