So we know Gov. Rick Scott likes to portray himself as the jobs-promoter-in-chief but what about tree-hugger-in-chief?
During his fourth State of the state speech March 4, Scott began by reeling off a list of recent accomplishments.
"A lot has happened since I spoke to you last year. I can talk about how our unemployment rate is now down to 6.3 percent. How our crime rate is at a 42-year low. How we have invested record funding in protecting our environment....."
Some of those numbers sounded familiar to us. But we hadn’t heard Scott’s claim that during his tenure we have invested record funding to protect the environment, so we decided to fact-check that claim.
Funding to restore springs
We asked Scott’s spokesman to provide us with documentation to support his claim that during his tenure Florida had invested record funding on environmental protection.
Spokesman John Tupps told PolitiFact Florida in an email that Scott was referring to his proposed budget that includes a "record $55 million" to protect and restore springs -- "building upon last year’s investment of more than $37 million."
Funding for springs is only a subset of funding for environmental protection, but we’ll look at the status of springs funding first.
As of early March, the Legislature hadn’t voted on the amount for springs protection. It’s possible the Legislature will set an even higher amount: A coalition of Senate committee chairs drafted a bill to raise $400 million for springs from documentary stamp taxes on real estate transactions.
The state has more than 1,000 freshwater springs, and many are suffering from nitrate pollution that fuels the growth of toxic algae blooms. Geologists have found an increase in saltiness in a few freshwater springs, which could signal future problems with the state's drinking supply, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
In 2013, the state asked water management districts for a list of projects essential to springs restoration and received a list of about $122 million. The Legislature set aside $10 million, but the total climbed to $37 million, once other sources including local government money was included.
"If the Legislature passes Gov. Scott’s $55 million springs recommendation it will be a record level of spending for Florida’s springs," Eric Draper, Executive Director Audubon Florida, told PolitiFact Florida.
Annual DEP funding
Though Scott’s spokesman said he was referring to money proposed for springs protection, his claim was more broadly about the environment, so we asked the Department of Environmental Protection, called DEP, for the bottom-line budget total for each year during Scott’s tenure. We found similar figures back to 2004, during the tenure of his predecessors, Govs. Charlie Crist Jeb Bush.
Here is the bottom line total each year:
2004-05: $2.1 billion
2005-06: $2 billion
2006-07: $2.9 billion
2007-08: $2.4 billion
2008-09: $2 billion
2009-10: $1.3 billion
2010-11: $1.4 billion
2011-12: $1.8 billion
2012-13: $1.4 billion
2013-14: $1.3 billion
These numbers come with some caveats: they are appropriation numbers, not actual expenditures, and they combine state and federal dollars. In several of those years, the numbers included debt service payments of more than $400 million.
It’s no surprise that the dollar amounts were higher in flush financial times under Bush and part of Crist’s term and then plummeted along with the economy in the second half of Crist’s tenure and Scott’s tenure. We have seen the same pattern for other state spending priorities.
Spokespersons for DEP and Scott also cited other environmental projects Scott has supported -- including an $880 million water quality plan to provide clean water to the Everglades.
Facing the prospect of court-ordered cleanup, in 2012 the state reached a settlement with the federal government to end a long-standing dispute about Everglades cleanup. All of the $880 million won’t be spent this year; it is a 13-year agreement. For this year, Scott proposed $130 million for Everglades, which includes part of that $880 million, as well as other state and water management district sources.
"Scott has skillfully negotiated the Everglades deal with EPA, which gives him a talking point of boosting environmental programs in Florida," said Jerry Phillips, a DEP attorney in the 1990s who is now an environmental watchdog. "But the reality is that Bush and Crist had been negotiating with EPA for years as well, on issues such as the Everglades."
The total DEP budget doesn’t tell the full story because other agencies also do work that relates to protecting the environment.
We interviewed several environmentalists who pointed to Scott’s lack of investment in protecting the environment. We will cite some of their examples:
• In 2011 Scott and the Legislature abolished the Department of Community Affairs, which for decades reviewed development plans in cities and counties.
• In 2011, Scott and lawmakers forced state water management districts to slash property tax collections. The South Florida Water Management District’s total budget dropped from about $1 billion in 2011 to $622 million in 2014. Water management districts handle planning for water resources and wetlands protection, among other environmental issues.
• In December 2012, DEP laid off 58 employees.
• The number of enforcement cases handled by DEP has dropped dramatically, from 2,289 in 2010 (Crist’s final year) to 799 in 2012, the Tampa Bay Times reported. As of the end of May, only 145 new cases had been filed.
• For many years the Legislature invested $300 million a year in Florida Forever, a program to buy land with money from a tax on real estate transactions. During the economic downturn, the Legislature pulled back. In 2010, Crist’s final year, the program received $15 million. In 2011, Scott proposed zeroing out Florida Forever (it ultimately got $744,000), and then in 2012 he signed a budget that included about $8 million. In 2013, lawmakers approved $20 million and directed the state to sell off $50 million worth of land to generate additional dollars. In March, DEP scrapped the program without selling an acre. Scott has proposed $70 million for next year -- that includes $40 million from the sale of non-conservation lands.
Frank Jackalone, Sierra Club’s Senior Organizing Manager in Florida, said Scott’s claim is "disconcerting" because of the various cuts.
"You have to take all that into account when you run budget numbers," he said. "It sounds to me like Scott’s people are coming up with their own selective set of budget figures. ... He doesn’t have environmental creds as far as I am concerned."
During his State of the State speech Scott said, "We have invested record funding in protecting our environment."
After the speech, a Scott spokesman said he was referring to money directed toward springs restoration.
Scott’s statement during the speech likely left listeners with the impression that his investment in the environment in general is a record, and that would be misleading. Sorting out the total investment in environmental protection under Scott compared to predecessors is complicated because funding comes from state and federal sources and multiple state programs relate to the environment. However, under one way to compare funding - - the total for the Department of Environmental Protection -- Scott falls far short of Bush’s record. And Scott doesn’t beat Crist’s record, either.
Scott tried to take his spending recommendation for one particular environmental project -- springs restoration -- and portray that as an overall record, and that’s not the case. We rate this claim False.