Among Florida's 40 specialty license plates, the top dollar-producer has been the Florida panther tag (not to be confused with the comparative dud that celebrates the Florida Panthers hockey team). The panther plate pictures the snarling head of a big dun-colored cat and features the phrase, "Protect the Panther." Since first minted in 1990, the plate has generated more than $20 million; last year alone it raised a nifty $3.6 million.
So why would one member of a prestigious governor's advisory council on the panther call the plate program "the biggest scam to come down the pike in ages"?
The answer lies in what happens to the money after consumers spend $25 on the tag -- and another $25 each year when they renew their auto registrations -- on the assumption they're aiding the salvation of an endangered species. Instead, recent budget figures reveal much of the money goes for expenditures that have little to do with panther preservation. This year, some of the revenues were allocated in the following fashion:
*$492,000 for general state expenses and for administrative and personnel costs of the state Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.
*$71,000 to help pay for a pair of swamp buggies and seven vehicle bumper winches for use by state wildlife officers in the Big Cypress National Preserve.
*$44,233 for the Canaveral Port Authority to fund a network of volunteers who "will be trained to identify and report sightings of northern right whales."
Panther advocates question whether such expenditures are what Florida motorists have in mind when they purchase "Protect the Panther" tags. Indeed, the law that established the plate says the money is to be used "for education and programs to protect the endangered Florida panther."
Money from tags first goes into the Florida Panther Research and Management Trust Fund, then is dispersed to individual projects. Trust fund legislation is specific and restrictive about those projects, calling for the money to be used directly for panther-related endeavors: reestablishing panthers into suitable habitat, educating the public about panther management, and increasing panther food sources.
Instead, what's happened to panther money is similar to what happened to Florida Lottery money supposedly earmarked for education. Under state budget pressures, the panther money -- like the lottery dollars -- started going elsewhere.
Until 1996 panther plate money was managed by the Department of Environmental Protection, which continues to oversee the second-biggest revenue producer, the manatee tag. Now, however, panther proceeds are the province of the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, which at the time of the switch faced a projected $3.5 million budget shortfall from dwindling hunting and fishing license revenues. Suddenly the game commission was off the endangered-bureaucracy list, though the panther population has continued to shrink, and by some estimates now numbers just 70 to 80 cats in the wild.
Comparing the original legislation to the real-life use of the money, Jack Pons, chairman of the Florida Panther Technical Advisory Council, calls many recent trust fund allocations "totally illegal."
Pons points to the single largest allocation of panther funds -- $1.35 million set aside for the game commission's Division of Law Enforcement. A December 1997 report explains that "the division is dedicating 75 percent of the time and resources of 30 wildlife officers in the nine-county core of existing and potential panther habitat to their panther protection program."
"If you believe they're spending 75 percent of their time on panther-related issues, I got some waterfront property I need to get rid of in Arizona," Pons snorts. "Let's be realistic. What's really going on here is justification for the money, because the alternative they were presented with was to cut their staffing by 10 or 15 percent."
Pons' committee, which advises the governor on panther science and survival, sent a letter to game commission administrators last week challenging the expenditure. No problem, says Ross Morrell, director of the game commission's Office of Informational Services. "Every penny of that money is carefully accounted for," he insists. "And it does all go toward the panther's health and well-being."
The second-largest allocation of panther plate money -- $1.16 million -- is earmarked for the game commission's Advisory Council on Environmental Education, a ten-member group of political appointees that awards grants to local education projects. Although the law that set up the council says it's to be funded only with manatee tag revenues, half its grants money now comes from panther tags.
In the past two years, however, only one out of dozens of projects recommended for funding had to do with panthers specifically -- $81,000 for the Florida Stewardship Foundation's Panther and Private Lands effort. That project studies economic incentives that might be used to get landowners to preserve panther habitat.
Otherwise the council grants have only the most tangential connection to panther preservation. And with a few exceptions, the grant money goes to groups and agencies in north and central Florida, far from the actual habitat of the Florida panther in southwestern counties. The projects range from a $16,773 expenditure for Miami-Dade County to "create a butterfly garden and outdoor classroom" for inner-city kids to $37,542 for the Northwest Florida Water Management District to "foster a sense of stewardship" regarding the Apalachicola River.
Morrell, who is chairman of the grant-giving advisory council, acknowledges that few of the projects have to do with the Florida panther. But he points out that the state legislature -- not the game commission -- made the decision to spend the money on broad-based environmental education. He also questions whether people really think license plate money is going directly to panther preservation. "If people knew how the money was being spent, they wouldn't object," he says.
As for the various laws that seem to intend panther money strictly for panthers, Morrell points out that the legislature has drafted appropriations bills each of the past two years to override the legal restrictions. "It's not a misuse of funds, it's just confusing," he says, noting that a "glitch bill" to amend the original laws is now wiggling its way through the legislature.
Dr. Bernard Yokel, president emeritus of the Florida Audubon Society and a member of the game commission grant group, says Morrell's right in his approach, but acknowledges there may be a disjunction between what people think the panther plate money goes for and where it actually winds up. "I think you need a broad-based program," he says, "but I agree fully that it ought to be more accountable to the public, in the sense that the public ought to know better what that money is being spent for."
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Peter Gallagher, the newest member of the governor's panther council, insists the public wants the money spent on panthers. "Creating the license plate program was a tremendous thing," he says. "But to run the money through this committee -- that's essentially a close-knit club -- and then spending millions of dollars on projects that have no direct benefit for the panther, that's outrageous."
Gallagher argues that all panther tag money should go to purchase land, provide conservation easements, and assist other progressive panther habitat preservation projects. "We don't need any more surveys, we don't need any little booklets to give out to school kids around the state," he says. "At this point in the history of the panther, it's clearly on the brink or even falling off the cliff of extinction."
David Maehr concurs. Maehr, a professor at the University of Kentucky, spent nine years doing field research on panthers in southwest Florida and wrote a book called The Florida Panther: Life and Death of a Vanishing Carnivore.
"If we take everything there is to know about panthers, what's the bottom-line problem? It's space," he says. "How can two swamp buggies or volunteers watching right whales or funding staff positions in Tallahassee help that problem?