Gov. Rick Scott's campaign tour of Florida environmental sites brought him to the banks of the St. Johns River on Thursday morning.
Scott, in a tight campaign with his chief rival challenging his environmental record, is pledging to spend millions on everything from cleaning up springs to buying more lands for conservation if he is re-elected.
During his "Let's Keep Florida Beautiful" stop at Clapboard Creek Fish Camp Marina, Scott highlighted his investments in Florida's environment and announced his future plans. The proposals represent a marked turn-around from his 2010 campaign when he pledged to slash government spending and tear away regulations that he said were harming the state's economy.
"It's always great to be out here close to the St. Johns River," Scott said. "Even though I walked in with a $3.6 billion budget deficit, the last three years we've been able to put $13 into the St. Johns River. We've done a lot with regards to the environment."
The Republican incumbent is vowing to dedicate $500 million to springs restoration over the next 10 years as well as $500 million over the same time period to help create alternative water supplies. He also wants to keep moving ahead with projects designed to steer excess and potentially polluted water from Lake Okeechobee away from the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
Scott also plans to promise to spend $150 million a year for Florida Forever, the state's environmental and conservation land-buying programs. The state once spent as much as $300 million a year on the program before legislators enacted steep cutbacks amid Florida's souring economy.
The governor is also pledging to crack down on polluters during a second term by increasing the fines that can be assessed against "bad actors" who violate permit terms. Scott said he also wants to consider making it harder for some companies to secure permits if they have had a history of harming the environment. Similar proposals in the past have been blocked by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Former Gov. Charlie Crist has been vocal in his criticism of Scott's handling of the environment, especially over Scott's reluctance to espouse a firm opinion on climate change. The Scott campaign has pushed back by contending that Crist didn't do enough to help the Everglades or springs during his time in office.
Scott himself did not emphasize environmental issues during his 2010 run for governor and during his first campaign expressed skepticism about climate change. In the last two years he has directed more attention to issues such as water quality and Everglades restoration, but Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said some of Scott's proposals marked a new direction for the governor.
"Florida has a history of governors with strong environmental records and Gov. Scott's proposal reflect a continuing shift in that direction," Draper said.
He added, "The proposed funds for Florida Forever, water supply and springs protection are in line with our expectations and build on the funds already put into the Everglades. The focus on water conservation and enforcement is new and grabs our attention."