Water Projects Splits Senate GOP Leaders

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News Service of FloridaTHE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, February 3, 2016………. In a move that caused a clash among Republican leaders, the Senate budget committee Wednesday approved spending $7.5 million for a project to address what lawmakers say is an environmental “emergency” in areas around Lake Okeechobee.

Sen. Joe Negron, a powerful Stuart Republican who is slated to become the Senate president in November, offered an amendment to the Senate’s proposed budget to expand a water-storage project. The proposal was related to problems with polluted water leaving Lake Okeechobee and going into rivers in Southeast and Southwest Florida.

“This is an emergency,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who supported Negron. “What is going on in this particular area of our state is an environmental emergency.”

But as the Senate Appropriations Committee considered the issue, Negron’s proposal drew opposition from committee Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, Majority Leader Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, and General Government Appropriations Chairman Alan Hays, a Umatilla Republican who oversees environmental funding. It also faced opposition from Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who is slated to serve as appropriations chairman when Negron becomes president, and Sen. Rene Garcia, a Hialeah Republican who oversees the health budget.

The opposition stemmed from concerns about where Negron would get the money for the water project. Negron proposed shifting $6.75 million of the money from a fund that is used for state park facility improvements. Critics of the amendment said they were not opposed to the water-storage project — but wanted to look for another source of money to tap.

“The concept I support,” Hays said. “The funding source I don’t support.”

At one point, Latvala asked whether all other potential funding sources had been exhausted.

“Is there any way to amicably work this out?” he asked.

Negron’s amendment was approved in an 11-6 vote and was included in an overall budget plan that will go to the Senate floor next week. Negron said he is open to working with Hays to find another source of money but said he couldn’t vote for a budget proposal Wednesday that did not address an “emergency” in his Southeast Florida community.

The money would be used to expand what is known as the Caulkins “water farming” pilot project, which involves pumping water onto fallow, privately owned citrus land in Martin County. The South Florida Water Management District website said the project captures water that otherwise would go from Lake Okeechobee into nearby waterways such as the St. Lucie River.

Negron said recent flooding has highlighted the problems in the areas.

“Brown water on the beach is not something we should be proud of,” said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.