Activists oppose environmental funding bill as land acquisition measures progress
Vern Buchanan wants the Little Manatee River gets the recognition as a national treasure. Image via Florida State Parks.

Little Manatee River
Environmental groups say the bill violates a 2014 constitutional amendment on conservation funding.

A slate of environment and land acquisition bills passed from their first House committee Monday, but not all with unanimous support.

Three bills considered in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee Monday afternoon would bolster Florida’s efforts to preserve land through conservation, water projects and more. But legislation to set aside $20 million annually to improve the water quality of rivers in Florida’s heartland has received pushback from environmental activists and others.

The bill (HB 603), filed by Fort Meade Republican Rep. Melony Bell, would provide consistent money to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for designing or constructing projects that protect, restore or enhance Central Florida’s headwaters. Water in the region affects 32 counties and about half the state, according to SB 1400 sponsor and Zephyrhills Republican Sen. Danny Burgess.

The dollars would come from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund (LATF) and pay to implement the 2017 Heartland Headwaters Protection and Sustainability Act, which outlines the expenditures. But as part of continued fallout from a 2015 lawsuit over how the Legislature was spending the resources, environmental organizations question whether the bill will be a proper use of the fund.

Critics argue a 2014 amendment requires the state to use the trust fund for nature-based solutions. However, Florida Conservation Voters lobbyist Lindsay Cross told the committee the dollars could be used for projects like gray water infrastructure under the current bill.

“We recognize that freshwater sources are becoming more scarce as our population grows, and that it is wise to plan for the future,” Cross said. “This is why it’s even more important to invest our public dollars strategically and as the voters intended, toward conservation and restoration.”

Nearly 75% of voters approved the 2014 amendment, backed by Florida Conservation Voters and a coalition of environmental nonprofits. Groups sued in 2015, arguing the Legislature had improperly spent the funds.

In 2018, a Leon County judge sided with the environmental groups, calling several expenditures made in 2015 and 2016 unconstitutional. But an appeals court sided with the Legislature and sent the case back to the lower court to determine whether expenditures made since the amendment kicked in were unconstitutional. Earlier this month, a county judge rejected the lawsuit, saying the funds had already been spent.

On the Senate side, the legislation has advanced unanimously despite opposition from Florida Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club of Florida and more. Orlando Democratic Rep. Daisy Morales voted against the measure Monday as it passed from the committee 13-1.

The House bill next heads to its second of three committees, the House Environment, Agriculture and Flooding Subcommittee. On the Senate side, it next goes before the Senate Appropriations Committee, its final committee stop.

Despite the opposition to that legislation, two other measures sailed smoothly through the House panel. One similar bill from Islamorada Republican Rep. Jim Mooney (HB 449) would provide $20 million from the LATF for DEP to use toward the 2016 Florida Keys Stewardship Act. However, Mooney’s measure specifies the funds cannot be used for wastewater projects.

The Keys are home to the world’s third largest barrier reef and the only living coral reef system in the continental United States, Mooney said. They also have the largest seagrass meadow in the western hemisphere and more than 6,000 species of marine life.

After receiving unanimous approval Monday, Mooney’s bill next heads to the House Environment, Agriculture and Flooding Subcommittee. The companion measure from Doral Republican Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez (SB 602) hasn’t received a hearing yet.

Finally, a bill from West Palm Beach Republican Rep. Rick Roth (HB 1377) would annually transfer $100 million from the Florida Forever Trust Fund to the LATF. An accompanying measure from Orlando Democratic Sen. Linda Stewart (SB 1816) unanimously passed its first committee and awaits a hearing in its second of three, the Senate Agriculture, Environment, and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee.

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.



#FlaPol

Florida Politics is a statewide, new media platform covering campaigns, elections, government, policy, and lobbying in Florida. This platform and all of its content are owned by Extensive Enterprises Media.

Publisher: Peter Schorsch @PeterSchorschFL

Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Drew Dixon, Roseanne Dunkelberger, A.G. Gancarski, Anne Geggis, Ryan Nicol, Jacob Ogles, Cole Pepper, Gray Rohrer, Jesse Scheckner, Christine Sexton, Drew Wilson, and Mike Wright.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @PeterSchorschFL
Phone: (727) 642-3162
Address: 204 37th Avenue North #182
St. Petersburg, Florida 33704




Sign up for Sunburn


Categories


This is default text for notification bar