Senate signs off in Florida Forever funding

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Voter-approved money for land and water conservation continues to be carved up by the Senate, while the House is on a different path.

The Senate voted 37-0 on Wednesday to approve a proposal that would set aside at least $100 million a year for the Florida Forever program (HB 370) from money stemming from a 2014 constitutional amendment. Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee supported a bill (SB 174) that calls for spending $50 million year on the maintenance and restoration of beaches and inlets.

Senate taking up Florida Forever, Bethune Statue

Also, the Senate on Thursday is slated to take up a proposal (SB 204) that would boost funding for natural springs from $50 million to $75 million a year and provide $50 million a year for the restoration of the St. Johns River and other North Florida waterways.

Aliki Moncrief, executive director of the Florida Conservation Voters, called the Florida Forever funding a “significant step forward for the future of land conservation in Florida.”

But she added that eyes are now on the House.

“The millions of Florida voters who said yes to the 2014 Water and Land Conservation (constitutional) amendment are watching, and they expect to see the House respond in kind,” Moncrief said.

A House version of the Florida Forever funding bill (HB 1353) has not been heard in committees. Similarly, a measure about beach funding (HB 131) hasn’t been heard.

Meanwhile, another House proposal (HB 7063), which has started to move, would limit Florida Forever dollars to certain land acquisition.

The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, would give the Department of Environmental Protection $57 million from the Florida Forever trust fund next fiscal year. The amount would gradually rise to $110 million in the 2023-2024 fiscal year and $200 million starting with the 2029-2030 budget.

The House has $79.5 million in its proposed budget for beach restoration, including $25 million for repairs due to Hurricane Irma.

Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday voted to shift $25 million from the state’s springs funding to the Rural and Family Lands Preservation program.

David Cullen, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, urged the committee to find another location to draw the money for the Rural and Family Lands programs.

“We look at this amendment with significant concern,” Cullen said. “We think the $25 million from springs is needed there.”

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putman, who is running for governor, has sought $75 million for the Rural and Family Lands program, which has been a key part of conservation efforts in recent years. Gov. Rick Scott didn’t include the program in his proposed budget.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who sponsored the Senate’s Florida Forever bill, said as Florida has become the third most-populous state, lawmakers have a responsibility to preserve the “unique ecosystems that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the world.”

Bradley has also proposed another $50 million for Florida Forever that would be one-time funding and separate from the recurring $100 million.

An important component for conservationists is that Bradley’s Florida Forever proposal would prohibit lawmakers from using money stemming from the 2014 constitutional amendment to pay for agency overhead, which has been a point of contention and the subject of an ongoing lawsuit.

Bradley defended lawmakers’ past agency spending but said his change “respects” the desire of the 2014 voters.

“We need to honor the will of the voters as what I believe they told us when they voted,” Bradley said. “This isn’t a legal matter. This is a matter for our discretion.”

The constitutional amendment sends 33 percent of revenues from a tax on real-estate documentary stamps to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. In recent years, legislators have directed at least $200 million a year of the money to the Everglades, $64 million a year to a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area, $50 million to natural springs and $5 million to Lake Apopka.

The “doc stamp” tax is expected to generate $862.2 million in the next year for the trust fund.

The Florida Forever program, which in the past received as much as $300 million a year, has for nearly a decade fallen out of favor among lawmakers.

News Service of Florida

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