DeSan­tis’ bud­get pri­or­i­ties ad­dress the right pri­or­i­ties

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Opinion -

Noth­ing re­veals a gov­er­nor’s pri­or­i­ties more than his bud­get. Gov. Ron DeSan­tis’ first bud­get — a record $91.3 bil­lion — ad­dresses the right pri­or­i­ties for Florida.

Whether it’s the en­vi­ron­ment or ed­u­ca­tion, the opi­oid cri­sis or af­ford­able hous­ing, DeSan­tis is dis­tanc­ing him­self from his fel­low Repub­li­can pre­de­ces­sor, Rick Scott.

Most no­tably, DeSan­tis has fol­lowed through on his cam­paign prom­ise to deal with the state’s wa­ter qual­ity cri­sis. The new gov­er­nor pro­poses $625 mil­lion for the bud­get year that be­gins July 1 and wants the same amount over each of the next three years.

Of that first down pay­ment, $360 mil­lion would go to 22 Ever­glades-re­lated projects. The reser­voir in Palm Beach County that will al­low south­ward re­leases of wa­ter from Lake Okee­chobee would get

$107 mil­lion, an in­crease of $43 mil­lion. That reser­voir will re­duce the amount of pol­luted wa­ter sent east and west to the St. Lu­cie and Caloosa­hatchee rivers. In turn, that re­duc­tion will help the

150-mile-long In­dian River La­goon — the St. Lu­cie flows into it — and the Gulf of Mex­ico. Re­search sug­gests that wa­ter from Lake Okee­chobee ex­ac­er­bates red tide out­breaks in the gulf.

DeSan­tis also would pro­vide $10.8 mil­lion for a task force to study blue-green al­gae, which has been the main prob­lem in the lake and in Trea­sure Coast wa­ter­ways. An­other $4.2 mil­lion would go to red tide re­search. Last sum­mer’s out­break in the gulf was his­toric and hor­ri­ble. The state re­cently re­stocked the area with red­fish af­ter red tide claimed so many.

Show­ing that he wants to work on all as­pects of the wa­ter cri­sis, DeSan­tis also pro­poses $150 mil­lion in grants to help lo­cal gov­ern­ments con­vert res­i­dents from sep­tic tanks to sewer sys­tems. Leaky, ag­ing sep­tic tanks con­trib­ute to the runoff that fouls the St. Lu­cie.

DeSan­tis wants to add em­ploy­ees at the Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion. He is cre­at­ing an of­fice that will rec­om­mend ac­tion to deal with ris­ing seas. The Depart­ment of Health would get its own $1 mil­lion for al­gae re­search.

Mean­while, DeSan­tis will have an un­prece­dented op­por­tu­nity to re­shape the South Florida Wa­ter Man­age­ment District. Among many other things, it’s the lead state agency on Ever­glades restora­tion.

Last month, just a few days af­ter tak­ing of­fice, DeSan­tis de­manded that all nine mem­bers of the district’s gov­ern­ing board re­sign. In Novem­ber, with al­most no pub­lic no­tice, the board unan­i­mously had ex­tended a lease of the reser­voir land to a su­gar grower.

The lease will keep the land from pub­lic use for at least two years and per­haps eight. New doc­u­ments un­der­cut the district’s claim that the board had to act quickly. DeSan­tis had asked the board to de­lay the vote, which came two days af­ter the elec­tion.

Be­tween res­ig­na­tions af­ter DeSan­tis’ de­mand and ex­pired terms, DeSan­tis by March could name eight of the nine board po­si­tions. His first two choices – Ron Berg­eron and Chauncey Goss – are en­cour­ag­ing.

Berg­eron, of Broward County, is a long­time Ever­glades ad­vo­cate. Goss is mem­ber of the Sani­bel-Cap­tiva Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion. Rick Scott’s choices had in­cluded no one with a back­ground in en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism or con­ser­va­tion.

In­deed, DeSan­tis’ bud­get seeks to re­pair the dam­age to Florida from eight years of Scott’s ne­glect on the en­vi­ron­ment. He or­dered tax cuts at the wa­ter man­age­ment dis­tricts, which could threaten flood pro­tec­tion. His ad­min­is­tra­tion re­fused even to men­tion cli­mate change. He gut­ted the state plan­ning agency.

On ed­u­ca­tion, DeSan­tis’ bud­get sur­prises in a good way. Though he rarely has ap­peared at tra­di­tional pub­lic schools and has praised char­ter schools, DeSan­tis is propos­ing $21.7 bil­lion for K-12 schools, a nearly $700 mil­lion in­crease over the cur­rent year. That comes out to about $7,653 per stu­dent, a $224 in­crease. Last year, Broward and Palm Beach coun­ties es­sen­tially got no money for any­thing but school se­cu­rity. He wants to spend an­other $423 mil­lion to re­cruit and re­tain top teach­ers and prin­ci­pals, a move that would re­place the ex­ist­ing Best and Bright­est Pro­gram. And $10 mil­lion boost to men­tal health fund­ing for schools.

In ad­di­tion, DeSan­tis wants to pare down the hated test­ing regime. He wants to scrap the rule that links teacher bonuses to their SAT scores. The pres­i­dent of the state teach­ers’ union, which en­dorsed Gil­lum, has ex­pressed cau­tious op­ti­mism about the ed­u­ca­tion bud­get.

We like other parts of the gov­er­nor’s bud­get. Un­like ev­ery other re­cent gov­er­nor, he wouldn’t raid the af­ford­able hous­ing trust fund. He also wants an ad­di­tional $30 mil­lion to fight opi­oid abuse. There would be nearly $2 bil­lion in fed­eral money for re­build­ing in the Pan­han­dle af­ter Hur­ri­cane Michael.

DeSan­tis, who is new to Tal­la­has­see and the Leg­is­la­ture, will face re­sis­tance. House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Mi­ami, has said that he wants to cut the bud­get. North Florida leg­is­la­tors may de­mand more than the $50 mil­lion DeSan­tis pro­posed for springs, which also have suf­fered from poor wa­ter qual­ity.

Com­pared with Repub­li­can lead­ers of the Leg­is­la­ture, DeSan­tis thinks big — and in the right way. Se­nate Pres­i­dent Bill Gal­vano, R-Braden­ton, wants more toll roads. Oliva be­lieves that health care costs will come down if providers have to list their prices.

The last few years have shown that Florida’s econ­omy de­pends on a healthy en­vi­ron­ment. The money DeSan­tis wants is not an ex­pense. It’s an in­vest­ment.

Ed­i­to­ri­als are the opin­ion of the Sun Sen­tinel Ed­i­to­rial Board and writ­ten by one of its mem­bers or a de­signee. The Ed­i­to­rial Board con­sists of Ed­i­to­rial Page Ed­i­tor Rose­mary O’Hara, Ser­gio Bustos, David Lyons and Ed­i­tor-in-Chief Julie An­der­son.

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