Senate President Joe Negron on Tuesday defended his plan to store runoff from Lake Okeechobee instead of sending it into coastal estuaries where the nutrient-rich water can feed noxious algae blooms.
One of the Stuart Republican’s top priorities for 2017 is to spend $2.4 billion to buy 60,000 acres of land south of the lake to store excess water and ease the effects of discharging polluted runoff.
During a briefing with reporters in his Capitol office, Negron acknowledged that his plan faces opposition from homeowners, developers and agriculture interests. But he added that the solution has been obvious since Jeb Bush was governor.
“There was a general scientific consensus that additional southern storage was necessary as an indispensible component of this project,” Negron said. “It is not a radical idea. It is not a new idea. It simply says, the time has come to stop talking about it and do it.”
The voters in 2014 approved Amendment 1 to the Florida Constitution to mandate use of 33 percent of the state’s take in real estate taxes to buy land when necessary to protect the environment.
“We should stay well within fiscally prudent amounts in terms of our bonding, and I think we will. Secondly, Amendment 1 not only authorizes bonding, it anticipates bonding for purchases of environmentally sensitive land,” Negron told reporters.
“Any argument that we shouldn’t finance land purchases is negated by the voters’ expressed intent in the amendment. When there’s a conflict between someone’s personal preference and what the Constitution says, we should go with the Constitution.”
He acknowledged the problem would also requite conversion of septic tanks into sewage systems but added:
“I don’t hear anyone defending the status quo — which is that when we have a lot of rain and the water level rises to 15.5 feet, the Army Corps of Engineers opens up the floodgates and literally destroys estuaries and lagoons and waterways east and west of the lake.
Negron called for conversion of Medicaid into a block grant program that would allow Florida flexibility to address local conditions.
And he addressed the death penalty, the status of which has been uncertain since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a death sentence imposed by a judge absent a jury recommendation.
The Legislature, in response, refused to require a unanimous jury vote to put someone to death, although Negron favored that outcome.
“My personal view is that we should adopt a policy requiring a unanimous verdicts, and that was the Senate’s position last year. That actually strengthens the efficacy of a jury verdict on appeal,” he said. “It makes a verdict less susceptible to challenge.”
Meanwhile, he suggested, state leaders should monitor the way courts treat these cases.
“It’s important that there’s an orderly system of justice in place for families of victims and for individuals that are charged with these kinds of serious crimes.”
On fracking, Negron expects the Senate to consider the topic again next year.
Last year, he opposed legislation that would have regulated fracking and authorized research into what it would mean in a state that relies on the shallow Floridan Aquifer for drinking water. The bill died in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“I wasn’t comfortable that the bill being offered had the necessary protections for the environment, the water supply,” Negron said.
Additionally, it “appeared to be taking away the right of local governments to also be involved in this issue.”
Regarding cities and counties that have imposed local bans, he said it’s “not a wise thing to have 67 sets of rules on a particular issue. But, as a general proposition, I think we should be cautious in pre-empting the abilities of local governments.”
Negron signaled sympathy for local governments seeking to regulate the spread of pot dispensaries through zoning. The voters this year approved a new constitutional right to access medical marijuana.
As with fracking, “I think, generally speaking, when it comes to zoning, when it comes to land use and growth management and these kinds of things, we should stay in our lane and let local governments make decisions that they think are best for their communities,” he said.
“I do think the state has a responsibility to make sure that people’s rights under the Constitution — the right to participate in lawful commercial activities — aren’t completely taken away. But in areas of discretion, I would generally err on the side of local government.”