Florida’s Rural Lands Conservation Program sparks controversy; divides Republicans

by | Jul 31, 2023

  • A $100 million veto by Ron DeSantis of a state-funded rural land conservation program has sparked GOP tensions inside Florida and on the presidential campaign trail.
  • Despite the veto, the program will spend millions in taxpayer-funded subsidies this year to pay farmers not to sell their land to residential or commercial developers.
  • Demand for the conservation program’s payouts has already surpassed available funding, with over 180 landowners applying for the cash.
  • Former President Donald Trump seized on DeSantis’ veto and other agricultural policy decisions to attack him as being anti-farmer.

An ongoing controversy around a state-funded rural lands conservation program that seeks to spend millions of dollars to protect huge tracts of Florida’s farmland from commercial and residential development has ignited tensions within the state Republican Party and has also spilled out onto the stage of the ongoing GOP presidential primary.

Governor Ron DeSantis, seeking the presidential nomination, drew a hard line against the program earlier this year when he vetoed an additional $100 million earmarked for the program. The veto accounted for nearly one-fifth of DeSantis’ budget cuts for the fiscal year that began July 1. DeSantis pointed out that although the legislature appropriated $300 million for the program last year, only $50 million was spent, which is why he scratched the $100 million line item out of the state budget this year.

But now, just months later, demand for the program appears exceed the supply of funding available. Over 180 landowners have already applied for the subsidy, which creates conservation easements and pays to support ongoing farming operations to prevent property development. Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson announced on Friday that his department would start to rank the proposals, with applicants seeking to cover more than 200,000 acres of rural property.

But as Simpson noted, the state’s funding capacity, due in part to the DeSantis veto, is stretched thin. Further approval for funding by the state requires the nod from the governor and Cabinet, which in May approved $57.6 million to place 18,279 acres into conservation easements.

Simpson questioned the DeSantis veto on the “Deeper Dive with Dara Kam” podcast, suggesting that the veto could delay efforts to keep 40,000 to 60,000 acres of agricultural land from development and impact future acquisition efforts as land prices rise. Simpson views the program as instrumental in connecting lands for the growing Florida Wildlife Corridor, noting that farmers have every incentive to protect the environment because they get their livelihood directly from it.

On the presidential campaign trail, former President Donald Trump has seized upon DeSantis’ veto and other agricultural policy decisions as a line of attack during their campaigns in Iowa, accusing him of being a disaster for American farmers and the people of Iowa. Trump also echoed his criticisms on his Truth Social platform, accompanied by a video criticizing DeSantis.

Notably, while many Florida Republicans have argued the importance of maintaining and protecting agricultural lands as part of a heightened need for food security, many free-market conservatives say that farm subsidies are little more than a wasteful government giveaway because the free market is far more efficient than the government at determining the value of rural land.

As the campaign trail heats up, the Florida program could become a pivotal issue in the Republican caucus in Iowa, with the event just six months away.


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