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Idea would bond Amendment 1 income, free cash for other enviro projects

A House appropriations subcommittee chair on Tuesday recommended bonding Amendment 1 revenue for land-buying while using a significant amount of the cash from the conservation-spending initiative for existing environmental spending, debt service, land management, and agricultural water programs.

A key issue in the 2015 Legislative Session is how the Legislature will spend an estimated $757 million from the Amendment 1 water and land conservation-spending initiative.

Environmentalists expect the measure to boost conservation land buying, but House Speaker Steve Crisafulli says the state should take better care of the land it already has.

In his 2015-16 budget recommendation, Rep. Ben Albritton, chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, seems to be giving environmentalists some land-buying they want while giving agriculture and industry groups the cash they want for water programs.

“We feel very comfortable we have responded well to that (Amendment 1),” Albritton, a Republican from Wauchula, told the subcommittee.

He said his recommendation for land-buying includes $100 million for water management districts, $50 million for land acquisition to restore springs, $20 million for Kissimmee River restoration, $25 million for rural land conservation easements, and $10 million for other land purchases.

In comparison, Gov. Rick Scott recommended $100 million for the Florida Forever land-buying program along with $20 million for land acquisition to restore the Kissimmee River. Scott did not recommend bonding the Amendment 1 revenue.

Scott also requested $50 million for springs restoration, but his requests in the past have targeted local water utility projects to improve water quality rather than land acquisition as Albritton proposes.

Albritton is recommending $100 million in bonding for Everglades restoration plus $32 million for Everglades water quality treatment. He also would bond $25 million of Amendment 1 revenue for wastewater treatment in the Florida Keys.

Neither Scott nor Albritton seem to be recommending funding to buy the U.S. Sugar Corp. land to create a flow-way for water from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades. A University of Florida study this month offered support for the purchase, which most environmental groups are backing.

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Albritton’s recommendation for Amendment 1 spending also includes more than $200 million in fund shifts from other trust funds for current spending and $191 million toward debt service for past land-buying.

He also would provide $35 million for water storage on farms, $7.5 million for agriculture best management practices, and $5.3 million for non-agricultural non-point source pollution prevention.

He said his proposed Amendment 1 spending does not include $100.6 million that he is recommending from general revenue for local government stormwater and wastewater treatment projects. He also is recommending $10 million for Eau Gallie River muck removal and another $10 million for Indian River Lagoon muck removal.

Reaction from environmentalists was mixed.

Janet Bowman, director of legislative policy and strategies for The Nature Conservancy, told Albritton her group was thrilled by the recommendation.

“Our priority at The Nature Conservancy is land management,” Bowman told reporters. “We are thrilled there is a significant increase in land management funding.”

But Will Abberger, campaign manager for the Florida’s Water and Land Legacy Inc. political committee that put Amendment 1 on the ballot, said he still was analyzing the recommendation before commenting.

Albritton said his request for land acquisition funding may fall short of what some environmentalists expect but he wants to set a mark for excellence in land management.

“My opinion is we should invest in land management and once we get our land management functioning at a level of excellence, then we can invest in land acquisition,” he said.

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment, energy, and growth management in Tallahassee. 

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