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Bill requiring $100M a year in Florida Forever passes Senate panel

A bill committing Florida to spending $100 million a year on land acquisition and preservation through the Florida Forever Trust Fund got support at its first Legislative step Monday morning, with approval by the Florida Senate Environment Preservation and Conservation Committee.

Senate Bill 370, introduced by Committee Chairman Rob Bradley, an Orange Park Republican, flew through the committee with support from the Florida Land Acquisition Trust Fund and a handful of environment and conservation groups, with just a few concerns raised about whether the bill says enough about longterm planning, or whether purchases can be evenly distributed in the state.

Bradley hailed the bill as the answer to Florida voters who in 2014 overwhelmingly approved Amendment 1, dedicating more money for Florida Future — only to see meager appropriations in the three years since.

“It is I think long overdue… that we move forward aggressively in making sure we honor what the voters did in Amendment 1,” Bradley said.

The approval was one of two major environmental protection and conservation reform bills that the committee approved Monday. It also approved Sen. Linda Stewart‘s SB 316 that goes toward her desire to prevent the state’s Environmental Regulation Commission from using short-handed meetings to push through reductions in standards.

Both bills got broad support and 10-o votes at the meeting Monday.

“As we look at adding an astounding 1,000 new residents to our state each day, the time to do that is now,” Lindsay Cross, executive director of the Florida Wildlife Corridor said of Bradley’s proposed commitment of at least $100 million a year to land acquisition.

“His bill is a significant step forward to fulfilling the intent of the 2014 Water and Land Conservation Amendment,” Jonathan Webber, deputy director of Florida Conservation Voters said later in a statement.

Bradley’s bill requires $100 million a year, to be divvied up by a formula already on the books that requires 35 percent of the money to go toward the Florida Division of State Lands acquisition fund, 30 percent to be divided among the state’s water management districts, 21 percent to the Florida Communities Trust for acquisitions for local parks and open space, and smaller portions to seven other programs that include the Rural and Family Lands Protection and Greenways and Trails programs.

“At the end of the day, keep in mind that when money is spent pursuant to the Florida Forever Trust Fund,” Bradley said. “You are taking land that is currently under private ownership and either putting it under state ownership… or creating a conservation easement on that land so that it would not be developed in a manner that is inconsistent in conservation purposes or recreational purposes, or the enjoyment or betterment of the people of the state of Florida.”

There was some concern that too much of the money might go to Florida counties that, in Bradley’s words, begin with the letter M – Miami-Dade, and Monroe, home to most of the Everglades and the fragile reef systems. State Sen. Dave Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican, joked that he might introduce a friendly amendment renaming Orange and Seminole Counties as Morange and Meminole. State Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat, proudly offered that her county begins with an M, and said that voters’ frustration over the lack of commitment to the Florida Forever Trust Fund helped get her elected this fall.

Bradley expressed confidence in the process laid out to spend the money.

“The acquirer doesn’t just exist in one area of the state. The precious ecosystems don’t just exist in one area of the state. The entire state is unusual as an ecosystem,” Bradley said. “That’s why you have the Acquisition Restoration Council… and do it on a basis grounded in science. And really sometimes that ends up with money going to one area of the state or the other, but I think it’s less parochial.”

Stewart’s victory in the committee continues her push begun last year in response to a 2016 3-2 vote by the Environmental Regulation Commission to reduce water quality standards. The commission normally has seven members but had maintained two vacancies for many months, allowing for a three-vote majority.

Her SB 316 would require the governor to fill vacancies within 90 days, and also would require four votes at any time to change environmental regulations. There was some debate over whether it was proper to impose a number of required votes, even if that number on occasion represented a super majority rather than a majority of those currently on the panel. Stewart argued that reduced-sized panels should not be allowed to lower environmental standards, a position state Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, backed up.

“I think we’ve got to be extremely protective of our air quality and our water quality,” Farmer said.

Rick Scott trumpets ‘historic funding’ for environment in next budget

Florida Gov. Rick Scott returned to Jacksonville Monday afternoon to highlight his new budget’s environmental proposals at the Jacksonville Zoo.

Scott’s final budget sees a boost in environmental funding, up to $1.7 billion: $220 million over the current year’s levels.

The budget proposal has something for most constituencies: $50 million for “the best state parks system in the country”; $55 million for springs, adding to what Scott bills as “record funding for our springs”; $100 million for beaches, which got “hurt during Irma and Matthew”; $355 million for Everglades restoration, including $50 million for the dike at Lake Okeechobee; $50 million for Florida Forever.

“The big thing today is we have the money to do these things,” Scott said Monday. “It’s $1.7 billion for the environment.”

“The money we invest in our environment is important for our children and our grandchildren,” Scott added. “The environment’s important to us. All of us have to call our House and Senate members and let them know.”

However, Democrats — such as Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum — accuse Scott of being an “election-year environmentalist.”

Gillum chides Scott for not putting enough into Florida Forever. Republicans, such as Sen. Rob Bradley, also would like to see more money in the land preservation program.

Bradley has proposed legislation that would earmark $100 million for Florida Forever.

Scott noted that “as we’ve turned our economy around, we’ve been able to invest in our environment. The things we’ve allocated this year: $1.7 billion, that’s historic funding. $55 million is historic funding for our springs. Nobody’s ever invested this much money as we’ve done the past few years.”

“It’s $355 million for Everglades restoration. If you look at all these things — our parks, our beaches, we focus on where we think we can have the biggest impact.”

The Everglades Foundation and the Audubon Society both support Scott’s proposed budget,, and had representatives on hand Monday to affirm that support.

Scott spent the early part of Monday advancing another proposal in that budget: $50 million for the federally operated Herbert Hoover Dike.

“Last week, the State of Florida was proud to secure President Donald Trump’s commitment to accelerating critical repairs needed to the federal Herbert Hoover Dike at Lake Okeechobee. While this partnership is game-changing, we cannot stop there. These repairs are a priority and that’s why I’m proposing $50 million in state funding to help expedite the project,” Scott said Monday morning.

With support from House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron, that proposal won’t meet meaningful resistance.

“My goal is to get the dike restored by 2022,” Scott said, framing the dike as just “one part of Everglades restoration.”

“The President says they’re going to work with us … he’s made a commitment,” Scott said. “I’m going to work with Congress to get it done.”

Orange you mad? Citrus language leads to marijuana lawsuit

A Florida nursery is suing the state over its preference in granting medical marijuana licenses to companies with underused or shuttered citrus factories.

Tropiflora LLC of Sarasota filed suit against the Department of Health‘s Office of Compassionate Use—now the Office of Medical Marijuana Use—in Leon County Circuit Civil court on Friday, court records show.

The lawsuit is the latest in a long line against the state over its medical marijuana licensing scheme.

Tropiflora, which previously filed an administrative protest over the award of medical marijuana licenses, already “has two judicial challenges pending,” its complaint says. One is still in circuit court and another is on appeal.

The latest is over the citrus provision.

For up to two licenses, “the department shall give preference to applicants that demonstrate in their applications that they own one or more facilities that are, or were, used for the canning, concentrating, or otherwise processing of citrus fruit or citrus molasses and will use or convert the facility or facilities for the processing of marijuana,” state law says.

Tropiflora calls that an “unconstitutional special advantage” that “adversely impacts” the company, putting it at a “disadvantage” in competing for 10 available licenses to be a “medical marijuana treatment center.”

It further says there is no “rational basis for granting a special privilege” to concerns that own facilities once used for processing citrus.  

The complaint asks the court to declare that portion of statute an “impermissible special law (that) grants a special privilege.”

Lawmakers claimed ignorance about that language’s origins when it was added to this year’s bill that implemented the 2016 constitutional amendment allowing medical marijuana in the state.

Nonetheless, Sen. Rob Bradley—the Fleming Island Republican who sponsored the Senate’s legislation—called it “good public policy” during the 2017 Special Session. He mentioned the shellacking the industry took in recent years from the citrus greening malady. 

“If you travel parts of the state, it breaks your heart to see these old orange juice factories, jobs lost,” he said. “Transitioning some of those facilities to something new is good.”

But Sen. Jeff Brandes, the St. Petersburg Republican who tried unsuccessfully to remove the citrus language, said it was “a carve-in for a special interest … It doesn’t look right; it doesn’t feel right.”

Tallahassee attorneys Steve Andrews, Ryan Andrews and Brian Finnerty of the Andrews Law Firm are representing Tropiflora. The case is currently assigned to Circuit Judge Jim Shelfer.

Rob Bradley, Aaron Bean win awards

Two Republican Senators from Northeast Florida, Fleming Island’s Rob Bradley and Fernandina Beach’s Aaron Bean, brought home some hardware this week in the form of awards.

On the strength of his SB 10, Bradley won Audubon’s Champion of the Everglades Award.

“I am extremely honored to be recognized by Audubon Florida,” said Sen. Bradley in a press release.

“The ecological importance of the Florida Everglades reaches far beyond our state. I’m proud to have sponsored the legislation that will reduce harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee and will allow for a large volume of water to be cleaned, stored and moved south into the Everglades and Florida Bay,” Bradley added.

“Senator Bradley‘s leadership on behalf of the Everglades proves his dedication to protecting Florida’s land and water resources,” said Julie Hill-Gabriel, Audubon Florida’s deputy director.

“He secured support in the Florida Legislature for the biggest legislative victory for Florida’s environment in 2017. We applaud Senator Bradley and are glad to name him as this year’s Champion of the Everglades,” Hill-Gabriel added.

Bean, meanwhile, won the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center’s 2017 See the Girl Legislator of the Year Award, which honors “systemic changes to positively impact girls and young women affected by the justice system,” per a press release from his office.

“I am truly honored to receive the 2017 See the Girl Legislator of the Year Award from the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center,” said Sen. Bean.

“Far too often in our society, the unique needs of girls are overlooked and a one-size-fits-all approach is applied in our justice system. Our young women want and deserve better,” Bean added, “which is why I am honored to advocate for Florida’s girls and the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center.”

Ethics board cites Justin Sayfie, Capitol Group for reporting violations

The Florida Commission on Ethics is moving against lobbyist Justin Sayfie and another firm for problems arising from random audits of their compensation reports, according to a Wednesday press release.

But Sayfie called the problem “a simple math error.” The commission also dropped cases against three other executive-branch lobbying concerns.

The ethics board, which said it “conducted a required investigation of the Sayfie Law Firm based on the findings of a random audit,” found probable cause “to believe that the executive branch lobbying firm under-reported compensation received from a principal for the third and fourth quarters of 2015.”

Probable cause means that an investigative body believes it’s more likely than not that a violation of law has occurred.

Sayfie, the former Jeb Bush policy advisor turned political website whiz, had his own firm before joining Brian Ballard’s Ballard Partners lobbying firm in 2015 as its managing partner in Fort Lauderdale. He’s now in Ballard’s Washington D.C. office.

“There was a computational error, a simple math error,” he told Florida Politics in a phone call. “I amended the reports immediately, but I guess (the commission’s) position is, the error still requires this finding.” Sayfie now has been randomly audited two years in a row, he said.

Under state law, once the commission finds probable cause, that finding is sent to Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet for further action. The firms can request a hearing, or the governor and Cabinet members can decide to call a hearing on their own.

In any case, if they find that a reporting violation occurred, they “may reprimand the violator, censure the violator, or prohibit the violator from lobbying all agencies for a period not to exceed 2 years,” the law says.

No lobbying firm has yet been penalized under the law, although four cases filed this year are still pending review, according to records.

“If the violator is a lobbying firm, lobbyist, or principal, the Governor and Cabinet may also assess a fine of not more than $5,000 to be deposited in the Executive Branch Lobby Registration Trust Fund,” the law says.

“My sense is (that) for transparency purposes it’s good to have these audits, but it’s a lot of reporting to do. There’s a lot of work that goes into them,” Sayfie added. “There should be some understanding that finding math mistakes is not the kind of thing the law was intended to penalize.”

Lawmakers have questioned the audits’ usefulness, going as far as to file a bill for the 2016 Legislative Session that would have repealed the audit requirement. It died before the session’s end.

“I don’t understand how the public’s interest is advanced by this exercise,” Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, said in late 2015.

The commission also found probable cause to believe that The Capitol Group “inaccurately listed a principal for the first quarter of 2015 (and) probable cause also was found to believe the firm filed an inaccurate compensation report for that same reporting period, and for the second, third, and fourth quarters of 2015,” the press release said.

A request for comment is pending with that firm.

No probable cause of lobbying law violations was found after investigations of Shutts & Bowen, Frank Meiners Governmental Consultants, and The Commerce Group, the press release said.

Bill requiring police to read rights before a search stalls

South Florida Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer is resurrecting the debate over whether police should be required to let people know their rights when it comes to searches without a warrant.

SB 262 would prohibit police officers from searching a person or their property without telling them they have a right to decline the search. State Rep. Shevrin Jones is sponsoring an identical bill in the House.

When Farmer’s bill went before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, as reported by WFSU, he detailed how police are already allowed to perform warrantless searches for a variety of reasons.

“For example, where an officer is in fear for his safety, if he believes there may be a weapon present that could harm him, if he’s in imminent harm him, if he or she feels there may be evidence that could be destroyed, if the search is not conducted immediately,” he said.

Farmer also cited a Department of Justice study that found 78 percent of the people who agreed to a warrantless search wasn’t aware they could have declined.

“And, so, that shows that we have a problem, where citizens aren’t sure what the law is,” he said.

The Oct. 9 meeting ended with committee members voting to temporarily postpone the bill, but not before it brought a variety of opinions from Republican lawmakers on the panel, including committee chair and Northwest Florida Sen. Rob Bradley, Sens. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Dennis Baxley of Ocala.

Baxley said the law is anti-law enforcement and just piles onto the list of things police are “constantly being reviewed and questioned” over.

“You can’t follow your instincts anymore as law enforcement. You sense that something’s wrong and you investigate it. And, this goes with that sentiment, that says, ‘it’s your duty that they don’t have to cooperate with you.’ Why should I have to tell anybody that they can’t cooperate with me? I don’t get that,” he said.

Bradley disagreed with that sentiment, though he said he believes the core of Farmer’s bill is already covered by the “exclusionary rule” which makes improperly collected evidence inadmissible in court. That rule likely wouldn’t apply in most cases of such searches, since they are authorized by law.

Brandes thought the bill, which clocks in at just 22 lines, needed to be longer to prove a decent solution.

“Standardize the language, just like we have with Miranda rights — to remain silent — to make sure that there are some standardized language as to what officers must say or should say in regards to search of papers, effects, and property,” he said.

Senators sound skeptical of new state jobs fund

Lawmakers asked lots of questions but didn’t get the answers they wanted Wednesday as a Senate panel tried to get a handle on the state’s new $85 million jobs fund.

The Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee heard from Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) head Cissy Proctor on the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund.

In a Special Legislative Session earlier this year for economic development, tourism and education funding, Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders agreed to create the fund.

It’s aimed at creating employment by enticing businesses to relocate to the state. The fund promotes job training and public infrastructure projects.

Proctor said her department already has received 179 proposals, which include 96 infrastructure projects from local governments and 83 workforce projects, worth a combined $642 million in requested funding.

Senators soon started peppering Proctor with questions: “It’s a lot of money … we want to understand what the parameters are,” explained subcommittee chair Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican.

Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, wanted to know if any preference would be given to “depressed or deprived” areas.

All proposals “stand on their own,” Proctor said: “Almost all represent incredible needs of the communities. We want the proposals to shine, to show us how deep the need is.”

When will Gov. Scott make a decision on what gets money? Bradley asked.

“I can’t tell you a timeline,” Proctor said. “We are reviewing them as they come in.”

Bradley pressed on, asking if there were any “objective standards” that the governor and staff will judge by?

“We are looking at each proposal on its own,” Proctor said. 

What about the process of how the governor will be presented with, say, staff picks of top proposals?

“We are working right now on what that will look like,” Proctor said.

Gibson later said she didn’t like what she heard: “I’m really concerned what could be done won’t reach the people who really need it.”

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican, added that because demand exceeds supply, “it sets the stage for so many projects to get left behind.”

And she worried that there was no way to make sure money gets spread equally across the state.

In a statement, DEO called the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund “a critical tool for economic development in Florida,” adding it was “committed to accountability and transparency in this process.”

The department “has posted every proposal on a dedicated website, along with frequently asked questions and direct contact information for entities to call or email with any questions. Strong contracts with entities that receive these funds will ensure that each project has a strong, verifiable return on investment and taxpayer dollars are protected.”

DEO, “along with our partners at Enterprise Florida, the Florida Department of Transportation and CareerSource Florida, are working diligently to review more than 170 proposals from communities across the state,” the statement said.

“As outlined in legislation overwhelmingly passed during a special session earlier this year, projects will be approved that meet statutory criteria and promote economic opportunity in these local communities.”

By the meeting’s end, Bradley told colleagues that DEO was “asking for $85 million (next year for the fund) and they haven’t spent the first $85 million. This is the new world we’re working in.”

Sentencing bill a ‘win-win’, says Rob Bradley

Florida’s prison industry has endured scrutiny in recent years, and a new bill from Sen. Rob Bradley may offer some relief for the sector.

SB 484 would authorize a court to sentence prisoners to county jail for up to 24 months, if said county has a DOC contract.

The bill would also require prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. Those prisoners will have sentences that don’t run longer than 24 months, and most felony convictions are exempt from this proposal.

On Wednesday morning, Bradley told Florida Politics that this is not a new idea.

“This is an idea that I’ve discussed with Senate and House colleagues for a couple of years now,” Bradley asserted.

“We’ve come close to including language in budget conforming bills in the past but we haven’t been able to cross the finish line,” Bradley added, saying that he’s “starting the conversation early this year.”

Part of the problem is that the state has more prisoners than its facilities can handle, Bradley said.

“Right now,” Bradley said, “the state incarcerates 100,000 inmates. After dealing with this issue for years, I’ve come to the conclusion that our infrastructure and personnel is simply not equipped to handle that number. We need to reduce the state population. This is a strategy to accomplish this goal.”

The bill, Bradley added, will benefit “certain local jails with excess capacity. The bill will help relieve budget pressures for those jurisdictions.”

‘Water bills’ already on the move in the Senate

A Senate panel on Monday cleared a ‘water bill’ aimed at cleaning up some of the state’s waterways.

The Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee OK’d the measure (SB 204) with a unanimous vote. Legislative committees are meeting in the Capitol this week, in advance of the 2018 Legislative Session that starts in January. 

The bill, by committee chair Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, would approve spending at least $75 million a year on springs projects and $50 million annually on projects related to the restoration of the St. Johns River—the longest entirely within Florida—and its tributaries, as well as the Keystone Heights Lake Region. 

Bradley said it’s “incredibly important” that the river “remain healthy”: “It really defines the character of so much of our state.”

But, he added, “there’s a limited pie of dollars and we need to figure out where to put them,” he added, referring to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.

A 2014 constitutional amendment, known as the Water and Land Legacy Amendment, or “Amendment 1,” requires state officials to set aside 33 percent of the money from the real estate “documentary stamp” tax to protect Florida’s environmentally sensitive areas for 20 years. That amendment, which needed a minimum of 60 percent to pass, got a landslide of nearly 75 percent, or more than 4.2 million “yes” votes.

The mechanism to spend that money is through the Florida Forever conservation program. Florida Forever regularly received upward of $300 million annually after it became law in 1999, but those expenditures were dramatically reduced after the recession hit a decade ago.

The current 2017-2018 state budget included nothing for Florida Forever, but the Department of Environmental Protection has asked for $50 million for Florida Forever in next year’s state budget.

Moreover, environmental advocacy groups filed suit in 2015, saying lawmakers wrongly appropriated “doc stamp” money for, among other things, “salaries and ordinary expenses of state agencies” tasked with executing the amendment’s mandate. A Tallahassee judge scheduled a trial for that suit next July 23-27.

The committee also took up a bill (SB 174), filed by Senate Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican. It would set aside at least $50 million a year to help address issues such as beach erosion.

“We’re gonna get (the bill) out early so there aren’t any questions” about its effect on appropriations, Latvala said.

The bill, supported by the affected coastal counties, also cleared the committee without opposition.

Both pieces of legislation next head to the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Environment and Natural Resources and the full Appropriations Committee.

Background provided by the News Service of Florida, reprinted with permission. 

Rob Bradley wants $100 million more for ‘Florida Forever’

If Sen. Rob Bradley‘s latest bill succeeds, there will be significantly more money in the coffers of the ‘Florida Forever’ program.

Bradley’s SB 370 would mandate a $100 million minimum spend from Amendment One funds on the Florida Forever program.

“As a conservative, I believe in absolute fidelity to the Constitution,” said Bradley.

“I am filing this bill because the Constitution demands, and the overwhelming majority of Floridians who voted for Amendment One in 2014 demand, that we protect the natural resources of our state,” Bradley added.

Bradley’s bill comes on the heels of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection seeking $50 million for Florida Forever.

The money would go to acquisition of “rare and sensitive lands” and water projects.

Environmental groups are already offering support.

“Opening this legislative session with a proposal to provide at least $100 million to Florida Forever demonstrates Senator Bradley’s environmental leadership,” said Aliki Moncrief, Executive Director of Florida Conservation Voters.

“Florida voters have made it clear they want more funding for parks, wildlife corridors, and environmentally important natural areas like wetlands. I hope that SB 370 is the first sign of the Senate’s renewed commitment to continuing Florida’s legacy of acquiring critical natural areas before they are lost forever,” Moncrief added.

Florida Conservation Voters notes, via press release, that since Amendment 1 passed in 2014, no year has seen more than $15.2 million earmarked for Florida Forever. This is a contrast between pre-2009 funding levels of $300 million a year, and is a small fraction of the over $2 billion set aside via the Amendment 1 real estate tax since 2014.

Bradley, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development and chairman of the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation, has prioritized those concerns for his largely-rural North Florida district.

Bradley had already filed a measure for 2018 (SB 204) that would lead to the state spending at least $75 million a year on springs projects and $50 million annually on projects related to the restoration of the St. Johns River and its tributaries or the Keystone Heights Lake Region.

Last session, Bradley pushed a project consistent with the aims of Florida Forever, securing recurring funds of $13.3 million earmarked for water replenishment in the St. Johns River and Keystone Heights Lake Region.

Florida Politics reported on this issue earlier this year.

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