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Less funding, watered-down bill leave springs advocates frustrated

Florida House lawmakers listen to debate on a highway speed bill Tuesday in front of a mural painted by Tarpon Springs artist Christopher Still in 2002 to represent Florida’s springs.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Florida House lawmakers listen to debate on a highway speed bill Tuesday in front of a mural painted by Tarpon Springs artist Christopher Still in 2002 to represent Florida’s springs.

Two weeks ago, when springs advocates expressed concern about how much money the Legislature might put in the budget for saving Florida's ailing springs, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Joe Negron told them not to worry.

Gov. Rick Scott had requested $55 million, the House had proposed spending $50 million and the Senate had suggested $20 million, noted Negron, R-Stuart. The final number would be "somewhere in the middle," he promised.

But when House and Senate leaders unveiled their joint budget proposal Monday, the figure for springs restoration was the lowest of the three: $20 million.

Meanwhile the Senate is slated to vote today on SB 1676, which lays out a series of steps on how to restore the springs. But environmental groups complain that the Senate version has been all but gutted, while the House version, HB1313, hasn't gotten a committee hearing and House Speaker Will Weatherford has expressed doubts about the whole thing.

After a promising start, disappointed springs advocates "have about folded up the tent for this year," said Estus Whitfield of the Florida Conservation Coalition.

The hostility to helping the springs, given their depth of support, is both surprising and frustrating to environmentalists. Audubon of Florida executive director Eric Draper said he gets why legislators might snub environmentalist wishes but couldn't understand why they would also undercut Scott's re-election bid.

Last year Whitfield's group, led by former Sen. Bob Graham, delivered 15,000 signatures on a petition demanding action on saving the springs. The Legislature doled out $10 million for a problem that the state's water management districts have estimated could cost $122 million, just for starters.

This year, hundreds of people, including some elected officials, rallied at the Capitol Building to show their support for springs restoration. Given that the state was expecting a budget surplus, Scott was proposing $55 million and lawmakers faced an election year, their hopes were high.

A coalition of powerful senators drafted a bill that called for designating protection zones around 38 of the state's most prominent springs, cutting the flow of pollution from runoff and septic tanks, and safeguarding their continued flow with limits on pumping. The bill also proposed earmarking $378 million a year from documentary stamp taxes to pay for septic tank upgrades and sewer line hookups near springs.

But the bill hit opposition from a cadre of business groups, including the Association of Florida Community Developers, the Florida Home Builders Association, the Florida Fertilizer and Agrichemical Association and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

By the time the bill won the approval of Negron's committee last week, it has lost nearly all its funding as well as some of its stronger regulatory provisions. The loss of funding prompted the Florida Association of Counties and the Florida League of Cities to oppose it too, arguing the state would be requiring their clients to fix the springs without giving them any money to help.

"It is getting watered down to the extent that it may not be worth the effort," Whitfield said. The bill is to the point where "if something, anything passes there will be cries of victory, mission accomplished, and bill signing ceremonies. At this point I would not be disappointed if nothing passed."

Gov. Jeb Bush initiated an effort to save Florida's springs in 2000, convening a panel of experts to recommend what should be done. The Legislature passed only one of its recommendations, then repealed it shortly thereafter. Scott's administration dismantled the initiative in 2011.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com or follow him on Twitter at @craigtimes.

Less funding, watered-down bill leave springs advocates frustrated 04/29/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 29, 2014 10:50pm]
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