Following the festivities of opening week and somberness in the loss of a great statesman in week two, the lawmakers and lobbyists at Florida’s Capitol finally got down to business this past week. The passing of Governor Reubin Askew last week was a truly sad event, as the former head of state was the first modern progressive, and he guided Florida through its second major explosion of growth, setting the course for a science and citizen-input-based form of governance. The solemnity of his loss may have reminded lawmakers of their collective creation of a legacy for this state, and that can only be a blessing in these years of quick legislator turnover and resulting short-term thinking.
A lesser number of controversial issues have been floated in this election year, which likely bodes well for Florida’s natural resources. Only a handful of truly threatening environmental bills have surfaced, and among them, HB 703 –Environmental Regulation by Rep. Patronis (R-Panama City)—presents the worst threat. The bill prevents counties from continuing to adopt wetlands, springs protection and stormwater regulations for agricultural lands, and prohibits local governments from rescinding land use approvals simply because the lands are continuing to be used for agriculture. The bill passed its first House committee by a vote of 10-2, and is awaiting a hearing in the natural resources appropriations subcommittee. Its Senate companion—SB 1464 by Simpson (R-Trilby)—will be heard in Environmental Preservation committee on Wednesday, March 26. The bill is beyond repair and needs to be defeated.
In the good news category, a comprehensive springs bill passed it first Senate committee stop on Thursday, March 20, after months of revisions and adoption of a committee rewrite. SB 1576 by Sen. Dean (R-Inverness) would provide an estimated $378 million for septic tank hookups and improved wastewater improvements, as well as land acquisition in Florida Forever springs projects. The bill also restricts certain types of land uses in spring zones, allows local fertilizer regulations, provides a more protective standard for water pumping and requires minimum flows and water levels. The proposed funding is 3.5 times what Gov. Scott recommended.
Industry supporters have opposed the bill, but all environmental groups present, as well as the cities and counties, voiced their support at the committee hearing. The bill designates 38 “outstanding” Florida springs and requires the Dept. of Environmental Protection to delineate protection zones around them. In those zones, septic tank hookups are required at no cost to homeowners, and sewage treatment plants must be improved within impaired springs areas, providing there’s funds for it.
One key difference between this effort and that of former Senator Constantine’s bill a few years ago, is that by designating these zones and targeting protection in those areas instead of in entire counties, the bill narrows the restrictions and requirements placed on water users. The millions of dollars directed to help homeowners and local governments is also a major distinction from recent springs protection efforts, and that funding, if it comes through, may finally signal a stop to spring degradation and start restoring what we’ve lost.
In budget news, both the Governor’s recommended budget and the first allocations set out by the House and Senate are now in, but there are some key environmental funds left out. For starters, even with $470 million in surplus revenue, Gov. Scott recommended just $55 million for springs, while a Senate subcommittee has requested $45 million and a House committee has requested only $30 million. Those requests represent a major gap between what’s been recommended in the springs bill and what each chamber has provided so far. A major effort by citizens and bill supporters will have to take place to bridge that gap and make the springs bill financially plausible.
Senate Environment Budget Chair Hays (R-Umatilla), who erroneously stated again this past week that the state owns 47.5% of Florida’s land area for conservation and doesn’t need any more, has provided no new revenue for Florida Forever this year, and $40 million in possible funds, all from the sale of non-conservation land. While Sen. Hays and the House staffer who helped the Senator come up with the drastically wrong figure for the percentage of conservation land in Florida eventually admitted they were off by a few million acres, the $40 million in revenue from the sale of non-conservation lands is in effect, phantom funding.
We only have to look at last years’ entertaining effort to raise $50 million from the sale of conservation lands to know that such funding may never materialize. At least this year, the funds will sensibly be raised from the surplus of high-dollar office buildings, parking lots and warehouses no longer needed by the state, instead of important habitat and water resource lands. And for the record, only about 27 percent of Florida’s 34 million acres is in government conservation ownership.
Sen. Hays’ subcommittee is recommending $127.8 million for Everglades restoration, although that is well short of what Senator Negron requested to help clean up Lake Okeechobee and the Indian River Lagoon as part of the Everglades restoration. Sen. Hays said in Thursday’s committee that the $127. 8 million doesn’t include additional funding elsewhere in the budget for Tamiami Trail bridging to allow more water to flow into the Everglades, which is just one of Negron’s requests. Sen. Negron has suggested that $220 million should go to Lake O and the estuaries east and west of the lake —and that is in addition to ongoing Everglades projects.
House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Albritton, (R-Wauchula) requested $70 million for Florida Forever, including $30 million in new revenue and $40 million from the sale of non-conservation lands. That recommendation matches the Governor’s. But Albritton recommended $115 million for Everglades restoration and the governor had requested $130 million, which is less than the $160 million recommended for next year by a Senate select committee.
The other glaring shortfall in the proposed budget is that for conservation easements under the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. Those easements, which are administered by the Florida Dept, of Agriculture and Consumer Services, provide a key opportunity to link critical habitats and watersheds, and perform important water storage functions across the state without as great a dollar investment as land acquisition. The House and Senate have so far not included funding for the RFLPP in their budgets, and once again, it will take the pressure exerted by conservation supporters on lawmakers to get the conservation easement program amended into the budget.
Negotiations between the House and Senate are still weeks away, so there is time for all conservation-minded citizens to ask their legislators to:
- Raise springs funding to at least $150 million this year to get many projects started.
- Include Rural and Family Lands Program funding of at least $25 million.
- Raise Florida Forever funding to $50 million in new revenue, not just potential revenue from the sale of lands.
- Raise Lake Okeechobee clean-up funds to $160 million.
- Raise Everglades funding to $150 million to speed up project completions.