Senate approves bill to ratify Everglades deal
The Florida Senate put the legislative stamp of approval on the landmark settlement between Gov. Rick Scott, the federal government and the sugar industry Thursday passed a bill to dedicate state money and establish criteria for restoring water quality to the Everglades.
The bill, HB 7065, which had earned the rare support of both environmentalists and sugar companies, will be accompanied by a $70 million investment in the clean-up efforts which are included in the proposed $74.5 billion budget. The Senate approved the measure 39-0 after the House approved it last month 114-0. Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign it.
The passage comes a day after the governor signed two legislative priority bills on campaign finance and ethics. The Senate had put on hold a vote on the Everglades bill as well as the confirmation of the governor's top agency heads.
Scott entered into the settlement with the Obama administration last year and quietly considered it a priority to have the legislature ratify the language and create a framework for funding the restoration projects.
The measure also puts into statute a controversial lease deal approved between sugar and vegetable farmers and the Florida Cabinet in January. The Cabinet agreed to give the farmers the opportunity to extend leases on the Everglades land for another 20 years without demanding they raise their water quality clean-up standards. In exchange, sugar growers agreed to continue to pay a tax, known as the Agriculture Privilege tax, to pay for clean-up efforts through 2035.
"The unanimous, bipartisan support in both the House, and now the Senate, to move Everglades legislation and restoration forward proves the success of true compromise and what we hope will be a lasting collaboration between legislators, farmers and environmental groups," said Robert Coker, vice president of U.S. Sugar in a statement.
"We've been working on these issues for more than 20 years and remain committed to striking the balance that allows farmers to grow food, contribute to a strong economy and also continue to serve as partners in the state's restoration plans," he said.
The Senate vote on Thursday came after former U.S. Sen. and governor Bob Graham urged them to reject the language that approves the lease deal, which is now being challenged in court by the Florida Wildlife Federation.
The bill will "have the practical effect to terminate that litigation,'' Graham said. "We would encourage a no-vote on the bill on final passage because we don't feel the bill will be in the public interest."