(TALLAHASSEE, FL/NSF/Feb. 10, 2022) — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday opposed a controversial Senate budget bill that critics say could affect Everglades restoration.
But Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, defended the bill as protecting restoration efforts, including a massive reservoir.
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved the bill (SB 2508), which drew opposition from environmentalists, charter boat operators and other South Florida businesses that rely on clean waterways.
On Thursday, DeSantis injected himself into the legislative process by rejecting the bill and saying the state needs to prioritize money for the $1.9 billion Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir, which lawmakers approved in 2017.
The reservoir was approved, in part, as a way to help reduce releases of contaminated water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, which have struggled in recent years with problems such as toxic algae. The plan also would help direct water to the Everglades.
“I have been a champion for Everglades restoration and oppose any measure that derails progress on reducing harmful discharges and sending more water to the Everglades,” DeSantis said. “Moreover, I reject any attempt to deprioritize the EAA Reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee. Rather than advancing legislation seeking to affect a major change in policy, SB 2508 is being rammed through the budget process, short-circuiting public engagement and leaving affected agencies in the dark.”
Critics said the bill, which is linked to the Senate’s budget proposal, would eliminate or threaten money for the massive reservoir, while requiring the South Florida Water Management District to back bringing more water to agriculture users, including sugarcane growers, when seeking state funding for restoration efforts.
Simpson issued a statement Thursday that said the proposal won’t “reverse or hinder” funding for Everglades restoration and the reservoir.
“SB 2508 does not change the goals of the EAA Reservoir, or go back on any commitment this state has made to the environment during my 10 years of service,” Simpson said. “The successful environmental projects Gov. DeSantis has championed were actually started long ago with funding and policy approved by the Florida Legislature. I agree with Gov. DeSantis’ commitment to our environment, and I too have long-championed these issues.”
Simpson, who is running for state agriculture commissioner this year, has questioned the reservoir in the past, while advocating for measures to clean South Florida waters through aquifer storage and recovery wells north of Lake Okeechobee.
In the statement, however, Simpson said the bill would safeguard money spent on environmental restoration. He also said special interests suggesting he is going back on commitments is “not only ludicrous, it is deliberately dishonest political gamesmanship.”
Before approving the bill during Wednesday’s Appropriations Committee meeting, senators said people appear to have been misinformed by social media and are misreading the bill.
Sen. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who chairs the Agriculture, Environment, and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, said the Senate’s proposed budget includes $64 million in annual funding for the reservoir, and the related bill seeks more accountability from the South Florida Water Management District.
“I believe you’ve been misled,” Albritton said. “I believe that asking for more accountability from an agency that receives 70 percent of their funding from the state of Florida, that’s good government. That’s good government. And we have the right and the opportunity to do that.”
By Jim Turner, News Service of Florida