FROM THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
By JIM TURNER
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, December 1, 2015………. As much as a quarter of the money voters approved to spend annually on statewide water and land preservation would flow into Everglades restoration and other South Florida water projects, under a House plan released Tuesday.
Rep. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican who will sponsor a measure being called Legacy Florida, announced the proposal to designate for South Florida water projects either 25 percent or $200 million a year, whichever is lower, of money from a state land-acquisition trust fund.
The designation would “result in a reliable, sustainable funding stream for Florida’s River of Grass,” Harrell said in a prepared statement.
“The future of our way of life is linked directly to the health of our rivers, the Indian River Lagoon, Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades,” Harrell added in the release.
The funding proposal, which has support of House leaders, would top the $188 million that Gov. Rick Scott has requested for the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee in his $79.3 billion budget proposal for next fiscal year.
The land-acquisition trust fund has been set up to serve, for 20 years, as the storage point for 33 percent of a type of real-estate tax dollars that Florida voters approved in 2014 for land and water buying and preservation. That approval came through a ballot initiative known as Amendment 1.
Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida and a lobbyist on environmental issues, said Tuesday lawmakers still need to increase land-acquisition funding with Amendment 1 dollars. But he was also among those praising the House’s Everglades funding proposal.
“It ensures a steady flow of money for Everglades restoration,” Draper said. “The projects, for the most part, are already planned or identified. This just makes sure that the money is there to do it. It triggers federal dollars, so in some cases, to make sure that comes down and make sure the Lake Okeechobee plan is funded.”
The governor’s office has estimated Amendment 1 is expected to generate $905 million during the fiscal year that starts July 1. The voter-backed measure was projected to generate $740 million in the current fiscal year.
Scott has also asked that Amendment 1 money include $62.8 million for the land-acquisition program Florida Forever, $50 million to help maintain the state’s natural springs, and $10 million for the Florida Communities Trust Program which provides matching grants to local communities for land buying.
Scott’s funding proposals represent a $45 million increase for the Everglades, an $11.5 million boost to natural springs and nearly $50 million more for Florida Forever.
Environmentalists contend the overall funding should be higher in light of the Amendment 1 voter support and controversial spending decisions made by the Legislature this year. Those decisions, which included using money — reportedly about $237 million — to cover agency salaries and operations, are the focus of two lawsuits.
The House’s Everglades funding proposal would go into a number of projects that are geared toward restoring the flow of water across South Florida including: the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan; the Northern Everglades and Estuaries Protection Program; and the Lake Okeechobee Basin Management Action Plan, which was adopted by the Department of Environmental Protection in December 2014.
The bulk of the Legacy money, through fiscal year 2025-2026, would have to go to planning, design, engineering and construction of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
Under Harrell’s proposal, at least $32 million a year through the 2023-2024 fiscal year would also have go to the South Florida Water Management District for a long-term plan.
The proposal must be worked out with the Senate.
In 2014, Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who be formally designated Wednesday as the next president of that chamber, steered $231.9 million for projects related to the Everglades and the Indian River Lagoon.
Scott, in a prepared statement Tuesday, praised the House proposal.
“It’s great to see the Florida House of Representatives, under the leadership of Speaker (Steve) Crisafulli and Representative Harrell, taking initiative to support a dedicated source of funding for the Everglades,” Scott said. “Restoring and protecting Florida’s Everglades is a top priority. We look forward to working with the Legislature, including Senator Joe Negron who has championed water issues, this upcoming session to establish long-term funding for our state’s most precious natural resource.”