FROM THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
By JIM TURNER
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 29, 2015………. The Florida Senate approved its version of a water-policy bill Wednesday with the hope some of the issues will be considered when lawmakers get back together for a special session.
The overall bill is a casualty of a budget impasse that has short-circuited the legislative session. Still, the Senate voted 39-1 to support the measure (HB 7003) with the inclusion of two provisions — a pedestrian trail network and an oversight council to rate potential water projects — that have been opposed by the House.
The changes won’t be heard by the House, which abruptly adjourned Tuesday, three days before the scheduled end of the legislative session.
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando repeatedly called the measure a “very, very good bill” that is the product of two years of work by the Senate.
“There are people that don’t want us to track every nickel that is being spent in Amendment 1,” Gardiner said before the vote. “The oversight commission that you put in here is a very important piece of this puzzle. Unfortunately our friends … across the hall aren’t even around to even have the debate and the discussion.”
Amendment 1, a ballot initiative that was supported by 75 percent of voters in November, requires 33 percent of the proceeds from a real-estate tax to go for land and water maintenance and acquisition.
Lawmakers will have to return to Tallahassee for a special session to pass a budget before the July 1 start of the fiscal year. Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said the Senate should propose $40 million to $45 million, which can be bonded to raise $500 million, for land purchases as part of Amendment 1.
“I think the voters want a robust commitment to environmental land purchases,” Negron said.
Amendment 1 is projected to generate more than $200 million for land and water projects above what lawmakers allocated for such uses in the current year. But to the disappointment of backers of the amendment, little has been proposed for next fiscal year to go into the Florida Forever program for land acquisition.
“Florida’s population is growing again. Our one-of-kind natural resources are coming under immense development pressure,” Will Abberger, who helped lead efforts to pass Amendment 1, said in a prepared statement. “Legislators need to finish the job of protecting these key tracts before they are lost forever. The best way to do that is by funding Florida Forever.”
Negron would like additional money for water storage to reduce releases now going from the lake into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
Negron voted against the bill Wednesday, saying later that the measure is a “diminishment of the permitting process” for water entering Lake Okeechobee.
Bradley said the state also needs to look at water-supply needs in other parts of the state.
“I want to remind the body that up in our area of the state we have a lot of springs where land purchases are going to be a part of the overall strategy in making sure those can be preserved for all time,” the North Florida senator said.
With an eye on a potential purchase of U.S. Sugar Corp. land in the Everglades south of Lake Okeechobee, Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, proposed — and then withdrew — an amendment Wednesday that would have required the South Florida Water Management District to identify areas within the Everglades Agricultural Area for a pilot reservoir project.
Few lawmakers have expressed interest in completing the estimated $350 million to $700 million purchase by Oct. 12, as required in a 2010 deal that U.S. Sugar signed with the state.
Sen. Charlie Dean, an Inverness Republican who sponsored the water bill, said Soto’s proposal needs more time to be debated and will be worked on next year.
The Senate bill included provisions for the creation of SunTrail, a pedestrian and bicycle network that is backed by Gardiner, and a water-resources advisory council to rate potential water projects.
Despite the differences between the House and Senate, the H2O Coalition, led by the business advocacy group Associated Industry of Florida, vowed to continue working to implement water-policy changes.
“This session’s outcome does not lessen Florida’s need for a broader water policy that allows our state to better manage its water supply,” Brewster Bevis, senior vice president of Associated Industries of Florida, said in a release. “We remain as committed as ever in advocating for a comprehensive water policy based on sound science that considers the needs of every region of our state.”
Audubon Florida commended Negron for voting against the water bill and said the Senate proposal doesn’t address the “water crisis” in South Florida.
“The Senate’s water bill is missing the part about fixing the polluted water pouring from Lake Okeechobee into coastal areas,” said Audubon Executive Director Eric Draper. “Until that problem is fixed, the bill is incomplete. We hope that the House and Senate on their return will take up and pass a measure to require projects to treat and store water from the lake and stop the damage to our coastal waters.”