Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state Cabinet Tuesday voted to spend $2.54 million to buy land in Hamilton and Lake counties as part of the Florida Forever conservation program, the state's leading conservation and recreation lands acquisition program.
The 83.4-acre property acquired in Lake County includes five continuous lakefront properties as part of the Wekiva-Ocala Greenway Florida Forever project. The parcels, which line Lake Norris, are worth a total $540,000.
The corridor is rich with diverse habitats, including forested pinelands and floodplain that are home to the largest black bear population in the state.
Lindsey Stevens, the land program manager for Nature Conservancy, said since the greenway is in a “rapidly urbanizing” part of the state, the smaller parcel of land is important to conserve. She pointed out the crystal-blue water of the springs, which she said are crucial to preserve.
“It’s an important piece to build this green connection,” she said. “As the land goes, so does the water. We have to strategically protect the land to ensure that our springs are something that our children can enjoy and future generations can enjoy.”
In Hamilton County, the 316 acres “Hardee Spring property” include parcels along the Withlacoochee River. The $2 million property is near the Twin Rivers State Forest.
Julie Wraithmell, director of Audubon Society, said without protecting vulnerable places such as these, Florida “wouldn’t be able to function.”
“These projects will protect a clear spring that stands out like a sapphire,” she said. “By protecting these places, its not just an investment, but it’s important to the health of the larger watershed.”
Florida Forever is the largest public land acquisition program of its kind in the United States, managing over 10 million acres of preserved land. Under the program and its predecessor, P2000, more than 2.5 million acres were purchased.
Both of the projects approved Tuesday show “increasing value of our current green infrastructure,” Department of Environmental Protection Noah Valenstein told the cabinet.
Ever since he started his term as Florida’s most powerful leader, Gov. Ron DeSantis has held true to his stance on the environment, particularly his commitment to the Everglades.
The self-titled “Teddy Roosevelt-style Republican” sent a letter to President Donald Trump Monday, asking for $200 million to fast-track construction for Everglades restoration.
The letter, co-signed by U.S. Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, asks that the president include the money in his annual budget request to fulfill “long overdue federal commitments to restore the Everglades.”
“Florida’s recent struggles with harmful algal blooms have raised the stakes for accelerated progress on Everglades restoration,” the letter said. “Enhanced federal funding to complement years of historic state funding levels would fast-track design and construction [...] to divert and clean Lake Okeechobee releases and increase water deliveries to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay/”
DeSantis, who has made the environment a top priority, made a $625 million commitment to the environment in his annual budget proposal, representing a quarter of a $2.5 billion promise he made to spend on water quality over the next four years — a $1 billion increase from past spending.
About half the spending — a record $360 million — would go to Everglades projects, speeding up a 17,000-acre Everglades reservoir in farm fields south of Lake Okeechobee and remove almost 200,000 pounds of discharged phosphorus per year — a major source of nutrient pollution.
The request for federal money would specifically go toward the Central Everglades Planning Project and the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir. They would also advance construction of water storage and treatment facilities planned for the Caloosahatchee River West Basin Storage Reservoir and Indian River Lagoon-South projects, in order to reduce the frequency and intensity of algal blooms.
The state budget proposal makes a commitment to the cause, providing $25 million to treat the blooms and red tide plaguing the state’s water supply.
"Are we spending money now in a way we can look back and say 'it's a good thing they really tackled that?'" he said at a press conference announcing his budget. "With the water, people want us to tackle that and I'm serious and get it done."
After Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an anti-discrimination order for state employees that excluded protections for the LGBTQ community, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried issued a revised discrimination policy for state employees in her department.
The revisions add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of workplace protections for the Department's 4,000 employees. Florida civil rights laws don't explicitly protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination.
In a statement Friday, Fried said the revision to her Department's policy is "long overdue" and that her fellow Cabinet members should follow suit.
"We are pledging today that our Department is committed to an inclusive culture of equality, in which every employee is hired, promoted, and respected on the basis of their merit," she said. "This is a common-sense, long-overdue measure that the majority of Fortune 500 companies have implemented, and the majority of Floridians agree with."
When asked about the exclusion of the LGBTQ community at a press conference Thursday, DeSantis said he was simply continuing the anti-discrimination policy that came before him under Gov. Rick Scott.
"My workplace policy is really just one sentence: we hire based on merit." he said.
At a press conference Friday morning, Gov. Ron DeSantis took questions from reporters on topics ranging from his latest appointments to the South Florida Water Management District to Thursday's robust environmental policy addressed in an executive order.
The newly minted governor addressed each question fully but when it came to climate change, he danced around his words. DeSantis angered environmentalists on the campaign trail after he repeatedly dismissed climate change as a real threat.
"We put in the executive over that as climate changes, as our environment changes, as water rises in places like South Florida and there’s increased flooding, we want to make sure that we’re taking the steps that we can to combat that," he said.
DeSantis then referred to the part of the executive order that establishes a resiliency office to address climate impacts.
"To me, I’m not as concerned about what is the sole cause. If you have water in the streets, you have to find a way to combat that," he said. "We’re going to work to do that and I think this office will be able to coordinate a thoughtful response."
At the end of the press conference, a reporter asked if the governor believes the scientists who say humans cause climate change.
Governor Ron DeSantis told lawmakers Tuesday afternoon that he looks forward to working with a legislature that exercises its power, suggesting Congressional lawmakers aren't sufficiently empowered.
Governor-elect Ron DeSantis' transition team announced the appointment of Seminole County Supervisor of Elections, Michael Ertel, as Secretary of State Friday.
"As Supervisor of Elections in Seminole County — where he has been elected by the voters four times — Mike has proven that he is vastly qualified to lead the state’s elections efforts as Secretary of State, and will strive to ensure that Florida voters are confident that elections continue to be fair and accurate,” DeSantis wrote in a statement.
Ertel, who uses inspirational quotes from Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt in his email signature, was appointed to his current role by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005. He was re-elected as the Seminole County SOE in 2006, 2008, 2012 and 2016.
His name will come to the foreground in 2019, as the 2018 midterm recounts and calls to investigate claims of voter fraud will likely spur election-related discussion and legislation this legislative session.
Before Ertel became an elections supervisor, he served as his home county's first public information officer and worked for the state's tourism marketing agency, Visit Florida.
He will replace Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who was appointed to the role first by Bush in 2003 and then again by Gov. Rick Scott in 2012.
Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Chris King didn't wait a day before responding to the latest ad by the Republican Governors Association, which has blasted his running mate Andrew Gillum's plan to raise the corporate tax rate.
"When I saw the new ad for the RGA yesterday, I think the first word that hit my mind was 'desperate,'" King said on a conference call with reporters this morning.
The Gillum-King plan would increase the corporate tax rate on the state's largest companies from 5.5 percent to 7.75 percent. According to the campaign, the tax would only apply to the largest 2-3 percent of the state's companies.
"98% of businesses would still pay no corporate income tax," said King, a Winter Park entrepreneur.
The plan would generate $1 billion in revenue for the state, and Gillum wants to spend the money raising teachers' salaries and investing in programs like early childhood education.
On Wednesday, the RGA released another ad attacking the plan, comparing it to a car wreck that would bring the state's economy "to a sudden stop."
On Thursday's call, two businessmen said the plan to improve schools was critical to attracting new businesses to the state.
Ken LaRoe, the founder of First GREEN Bank, said his Orlando-based company would make $10 million in net profit next year. Under Gillum's plan, his company would pay an additional $200,000 in corporate taxes, he said.
He called that "a very, very small sacrifice to make" to build a good school system.
"Florida’s a sh--hole," he said, repeating how it's a "sh--hole" in its programs, including programs for the developmentally disabled. LaRoe said he has a developmentally disabled child.
LaRoe later apologized for his language, expressing his frustration with the last two decades of Republican leadership in the state. He said his comments were referring to how other people perceive Florida.
"I’ve entered a very profane stage of life," LaRoe said. "I love this state, and in my travels around the country and the world on business, the rest of the country, especially, is looked at disdain at the state of Florida. ... I’m just sickened by what’s happened in this state."
When asked about LaRoe's comments, King said he disagreed with them.
"Mayor Gillum and I don’t share that view," he said. "I love Florida. Mayor Gillum loves Florida."
The state agency in charge of regulating taxation in Florida has four equal bosses — Gov. Rick Scott and the three elected members of the Cabinet — but in the past two years, in public meetings and correspondence, they have asked few questions and have given the agency scant public scrutiny.
The agency's director, Leon Biegalski, was the governor's choice to lead the Department of Revenue when he was elevated from deputy secretary at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation in April 2016. Since then, the governor has canceled DOR's regular appearance in 9 of 19 before the Cabinet meetings.
When Biegalski appears before the Cabinet on Wednesday, it will be the first time this year. Will they ask any questions?
Judging from the transcripts of the previous meetings, that's not likely. Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam asked only two questions in Biegalski's 10 appearance before them — and both came from Putnam. Story here.
Until Scott's tenure, the Florida Cabinet had a tradition of meeting every other week.
Florida, unlike most other states, has a unique power-sharing relationship between its governor and the Cabinet members. They share oversight and hiring authority of the directors of the departments of revenue, law enforcement, highway safety, the division of bond finance and the state board of administration.But the shared role also underscores the structural weakness of Florida's governor in controlling the shared agencies and Scott has ratcheted down the amount of substantial dialogue that takes place during Cabinet meetings.
In the last seven years, Cabinet sessions have been more ceremonial and less substantive. More time is devoted to award ceremonies than under previous governors, and a regular feature is Bondi’s promotion of offering dogs for adoption.
Scott, who is running for U.S. Senate, sets the calendar and has convened only three Cabinet meetings this year. He scheduled eight meetings for the entire year, the fewest in recent memory, and canceled the meeting in May.
When the Cabinet had both Democrats and Republicans on it, there were more questions of agency heads in the public forum than there have been under Scott.
At a Nov. 20, 2008, Cabinet meeting, as former Revenue Director Lisa Echeverri Vickers presented her legislative budget request and annual performance report, former CFO Alex Sink grilled her about enforcement of tax revenue collection. Vickers acknowledged that she is asking for more auditors to help them collect the unpaid taxes.
Sink, a former banker and a Democrat, then asked about tax collections on short sales, a policy based on the rule because the Legislature failed to pass a statute, and the agency's application of "a glitch in the depreciation laws" that had left many businesses vulnerable.
The discussion provided an opportunity for the public to hear the agency's response to handling two important issues in an open forum.
Under Gov. Jeb Bush, former Revenue Director admitted during his annual performance review on Sept. 21, 2004, that the measures related to review of property appraisers "were fairly easy to achieve."
"You're an honest man, Zingale,'' Bush replied.
"Well, we want to do better than that,'' Zingale responded.
Gwen Graham would phase out private prisons in Florida and decriminalize the personal possession of marijuana if elected governor, according to a nine-point plan her campaign laid out today.
"For too long, the politicians in Tallahassee have ignored the inequity and pervasive prejudice in Florida’s criminal justice system," Graham said in a statement. "While they’ve failed to act, Floridians have been hurt by mass incarceration, increasing costs and devastating cuts."
Graham, one of four Democrats running for governor, laid out proposals that she thinks can pass in Florida's Republican-dominated Legislature, where some Republicans have led the charge for criminal justice reform - with mixed success.
Graham said she supports reforming the bail bond system, which keep poor people who can't afford to pay bail in jail longer. Orlando-area State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced in May that prosecutors in her office would no longer seek bail for low-level offenders, one option that Graham says she is considering.
Some of her other ideas include:
Graham said her first priority is "upholding the will of the people" and making medical marijuana accessible to those who need it. But she also believes that possession of marijuana in small amounts should not have a criminal penalty.
Some Florida counties have changed their ordinances so that being caught with small amounts of marijuana results in a civil fine, rather than an arrest.
"Florida should embrace the principle that no young person should go to jail or have their lives ruined over an incident of marijuana use — we can and should decriminalize," she said in a statement.
Her ideas were endorsed by former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, state Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, Leon County Public Defender Nancy Daniels and the state's largest police union, the Police Benevolent Association.
“We believe Graham’s plan to better support officers, close the state’s private prisons, and expand rehabilitation programs will make Florida safer," PBA executive director Matt Puckett said in a statement.
Her ideas didn't go quite as far as Orlando businessman Chris King's, who is trailing in the polls. King wants to eliminate the death penalty in Florida and legalize marijuana completely.
Graham's plan prompted King campaign spokesman Avery Jaffe to take a shot at her, calling it "half-hearted" and "lame."