Possible Shift of Preservation Funds Would Hurt Duval Delaney Concerned Budget Will Devastate City's Efforts

Article excerpt

Byline: Jim Saunders, Times-Union staff writer

TALLAHASSEE -- Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney has become known in recent years for lobbying to get millions of tax dollars from the state to preserve undeveloped land in his city.

But this year, Delaney could face his toughest battle: He is trying to help stave off a legislative plan that would strip $100 million from state land-buying programs.

The Florida Senate approved a nearly $48 billion budget yesterday that would shift money from land preservation to help boost spending on schools and health programs.

The plan, which is opposed by Gov. Jeb Bush and the state's major environmental groups, likely will become a key issue in the coming weeks as the Senate and the House negotiate a final budget.

Delaney hopes the House, which did not include the plan in the budget it passed yesterday, will scuttle the idea. He said the shift could jeopardize some of Jacksonville's biggest land projects, including preserving undeveloped land in fast-growing areas of the Southside.

"It will devastate our land-acquisition program in Jacksonville," said Delaney, who lobbied Bush and lawmakers yesterday.

But Delaney, Bush and the environmental groups might have a difficult time killing the plan, which has the backing of Senate President John McKay, R-Bradenton.

The state is facing a tight budget because of a nearly $1 billion increase in Medicaid costs and a slowing economy that has limited the amount of additional tax dollars this year.

Shifting the money offers a way for lawmakers to increase funding to public schools and health programs. Also, it could become a bargaining chip for House leaders, who want to use the budget negotiations to push through a series of tax cuts opposed by the Senate.

Meanwhile, Bush probably would not be able to veto the plan because it is tied to his much-ballyhooed efforts to restore the Everglades.

McKay said the plan would tap money that has gone unspent for land preservation. Senate supporters say the state needs the money to bolster spending on schools and health programs.

"What we're saying is, look where the money is being spent," said Senate Majority Leader Jim King, R-Jacksonville. "It's not being squandered."

House Speaker Tom Feeney, an Oviedo Republican who could play the most important role in resolving the issue, said he is open to the possibility of shifting the money for one year. But he said he would be concerned that it could lead to similar shifts in the future.

"That [the Senate plan] is not in our budget," Feeney said. "It's something we have said we're willing to look at."

The plan involves using $100 million from the state's Preservation 2000 land-buying program to help pay for a massive project to restore the Everglades.

By doing that, lawmakers would free money that otherwise would go to the Everglades. Much of that money, which is not restricted to environmental projects, would be used for health and education programs -- including boosting classroom spending statewide and helping low-performing schools.

Delaney has become a statewide leader on land-buying issues during the past few years, as he has moved forward with his $362 million Preservation Project. That program has led to the purchase of 19,360 acres in Jacksonville, including targeting land that otherwise might be developed.

The city, which has worked with state and federal agencies, has used $31.6 million from state programs to help buy the land. The Preservation 2000 program gets money from documentary stamp taxes that are imposed on real-estate transactions. …