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Business Observer Thursday, Mar. 19, 2009 9 years ago

Here today ... gone tomorrow?

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Florida's four-year-old Century Commission, which is supposed to look out into the year 2030 and beyond, might not survive 2009.
by: Jay Brady Government Editor

Florida's four-year-old Century Commission, which is supposed to look out into the year 2030 and beyond, might not survive 2009.


The Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida is having trouble even sustaining itself.

As a group formed by the Florida Legislature in 2005 to look toward both 25- and 50-year horizons, its days appear short if its budget is zeroed out as proposed by Gov. Charlie Crist.

The commission, which counts powerful members such as St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, and Bonita Springs-based Gilkey Organization chief executive Dennis Gilkey, will instead look to reinvent itself by going private.

“To do the work that needs to be done, we need funding from public/private partnerships,” says Gilkey.

Commission Executive Director Tim Center says the situation for his group is dire, considering Crist's budget proposal would reduce what was supposed to be a $200,000 budget to zero. While hopeful for either a legislative reprieve or private funding to fill the void, Center is still mystified, saying, “We're not even a rounding error in most budgets.”

In fact, the actual budget for the commission came out to only $81,800 because it only gets a percentage of the tax on real estate transactions, commonly referred to as documentary stamp tax revenue. Those revenues sank last year with the real estate meltdown.

Center, who took over the role of running the commission from former Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tim Siebert in mid-2008, thinks that without direct state government support, the commission will redirect itself to focusing on more events. These events, such as the Water Congress the commission sponsored last fall, are designed to attract stakeholders from the public and private sectors.

Asked about shifting in that direction, Bennett says, “We're certainly looking at that. We think it's that important.”

The commission also includes WilsonMiller planner Jim Paulmann and Laura Holquist, President of Allete Properties in Fort Myers. It's balanced by representatives from The Nature Conservancy, 1000 Friends of Florida, county commissioners from Palm Beach and Okaloosa Counties, the mayor of Hialeah, a lawyer, a CPA and a retired Army colonel. In fact, based on recommendations and priorities, if any segment of the group can be said to have the upper hand it would have to be the environmental contingent.

Bennett is a unique position on the commission, not only because he is the only legislator on the panel. As chairman of the Senate's Community Affairs Committee — which oversees the commission through the state's DCA — Bennett isn't happy with the budget-induced demise of the commission. “It's an example of short-term thinking,” he says.

But, as a member of the Finance and Tax Committee, Bennett also understands the financial situation.

“As much as I love the Century Commission, we have a very tight budget,” says Bennett. “You got to look at everything. I'm going to try to get it back in there, but if that's what it takes to balance the budget then we got to look at it.”

Center, who also serves as President of the Collins Center, a policy think tank that focuses on sustainability issues, has an obvious self-interest in keeping the commission alive. Still, just as the commission itself is directed to do,
Center likes to think big-picture.

“When you get rid of the Century Commission,” Center says, “you get rid of Florida government's capacity to think long term and envision its future.”

Think tank thinking
Defenders of the commission also say that its work has been beneficial to the current Florida, not just the future state. For example, Siebert, in a letter to the commission sent in June, wrote that “Governor Crist credits the Century Commission with placing climate change and energy 'independence' on his policy radar screen, and he took dramatic action in response.”

Another recommendation — to extend legislative term limits from eight years to 12 years — couldn't be timelier. It's an idea that has come and gone for years, but the commission says extending term limits now would allow legislators to put their institutional knowledge to work for a longer period of time.

While the plan is sure to have its detractors, Bennett wouldn't be one of them, saying, “I think it's absolutely necessary.” He adds that it would not affect current legislators' terms and would reduce the money needed for political campaigns.

Meanwhile, the Commission's Critical Lands and Waters Identification Project, CLIP, has been one of its primary focus points. The project's goal is “to create a conservation vision or 'blueprint' for Florida.”

But it may have much larger ramifications for Florida taxpayers if large government expenditures occur or more land is taken off the tax rolls.

That's because the CLIP project information is also being used for another statewide initiative to develop conservation priorities and a set of incentives to protect privately held lands. At stake: potentially millions of acres that add up to an astonishing 63% of the state's land area.

A total of 11.4 million acres of private land in the state, 33% of the land area of Florida, have been identified in the CLIP report as the top two of five priority levels. When all five priority levels are added up it comes to nearly 22 million acres - 63% of the state's 34.7 million upland acres.

Jon Oetting, a conservation planner and co-author of the CLIP report, acknowledges there would never be enough money to buy or obtain conservation easements on so much land. Taxpayers and local governments concerned with shrinking tax bases may hold some comfort in that.

Meanwhile, the Century Commission itself remains on life support. Just like Bennett, Pelham, of the DCA, is somewhat conflicted. Despite his affinity for the commission, he supports the Crist budget proposal, saying it's just a reflection of the tough economic times.

Asked what the Commission had planned to accomplish this year, Center says, “Our work plan this year was to convene a growth management congress that would talk about conservation and land use and how do you reform what has not really worked in Florida.”

Perhaps that's the problem. A bill in the Senate, ironically sponsored by Bennett, aims to reform growth management laws. The bill also has the support of Pelham, Center's boss.

Crist, meanwhile, is determined to carry out his goal of funding conservation lands purchases through Florida Forever. Finally, a report prepared last year for the commission touts the extremely generous federal conservation easement tax incentives.

Add up all those happenings and it's possible the Century Commission's mission is largely accomplished or has put been in the hands of other agencies to implement.

REVIEW SUMMARY

What. The future of the Century Commission is in doubt.
Issue. Is there a future for the state panel tasked with looking into Florida's future?
Impact. State budget issues put more focus on the here and now, putting private funding sources in a bailout role for the commission.

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