Among those heavily disappointed by the recently aborted Legislative Session are environmental advocates, frustrated by lawmakers who failed to allocate enough money for Florida Forever, the state’s land acquisition program. That failure came despite more than 75 percent of voters in November approving Amendment 1, which calls for setting aside part of real estate document taxes to help safeguard undeveloped land, including the Everglades.
With the Legislature returning next week for a three-week Special Session, environmental advocates say there’s still time to make things right. The authors of Amendment 1 are holding rallies in nine cities across the state Saturday with the message to the House and Senate to “Finish the Job.”
Rallies are set for Miami, Orlando, Stuart, Melbourne, Jacksonville, Fort Myers, Alachua, Bradenton and Tampa, where people will gather at Cypress Point Park, 5620 W. Cypress St. from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Locations of the other rallies can be found here.
Critics say the Legislature floundered during the first month of the session, allocating more than $200 million to cover existing agency operating expenses and other spending that didn’t meet the intent of Amendment 1, while largely ignoring Florida Forever. The Senate later approved $17 million for the program after its $2 million initial proposal drew sharp statewide criticism. It then budgeted another $20 million for springs, but never came to an agreement before the session ended early.
Everglades restoration is among the top items environmentalists want to fund via Amendment 1. However, the plan to purchase more than 46,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee from U.S. Sugar Corp. went awry last month when the Florida Southwest Management Water District pulled back from the deal, saying it could have cost as much as $700 million. The district said building a reservoir on the land could cost an additional $2.5 billion, sidetracking other overdue Everglades restoration projects.
“It was a vote to give the Legislature, the governor and Big Sugar political cover,” Mary Barley, president of Everglades Trust, said Wednesday morning on a conference call. “The district ignored the will of the voters, and still refuses to implement the 2000 long-term comprehensive Everglades Restoration plan,” she said.
A crucial part of that plan requires a reservoir in the Everglades agriculture area, she said.
“We see a clear path forward for the Special Session with the U.S. Sugar deal off the table,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Florida Audubon.
He said the first goal is to persuade the Legislature to provide money for Everglades restoration projects, specifically to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee, and to have the South Florida Water Management District formulate a plan for water storage. “Our goal is to get funds to get language in the budget that will direct the water management district to move forward with an alternative to the U.S. Sugar deal.”
Barley says it’s now about uniting the public to put pressure on the Legislature to do what the voters called for last year in overwhelmingly approving Amendment 1.
“Over the next several weeks, our campaign will be engaging citizens to reach out to their elected officials, ” she said Wednesday. “We will also deploy additional efforts for our digital efforts and direct mail in districts across the state.
“We have a path forward, we will be diligent.”
To do otherwise isn’t an option, she said.
“The cost of inaction could be catastrophic.”