Sunday, February 18, 2018
Editorials

Bill doesn't do enough to return control to water districts

Only with this governor and Legislature does a watered-down assault on local control and the environment count as a victory. A Senate bill approved last month and now part of this week's endgame with the House would restore some of last year's budget cuts to the state's five water management districts. The districts need the money, but the trade-off is unacceptable. The bill gives more authority over water policy to the same governor who caused the districts' financial free fall in the first place, and it enables Tallahassee to continue to hijack local water for political purposes.

The measure, SB 1986, marks an election-year attempt by the Republican-led Legislature to distance itself from the deep cuts it imposed on the water agencies last year. The caps in revenue cost the five water management agencies a combined $700 million and forced the layoff of hundreds of employees, including the most experienced hydrologists in the state. This year's bill is part apology, and also a realization that the state cannot meet its water supply and flood control needs — much less invest for the future — with a revenue base that is fundamentally inadequate.

It is understandable that some environmentalists support the legislation, because it would put the water management agencies on sounder financial footing. And the Senate stripped out several provisions that would have made it easier for the Legislature to prevent the water management districts from regulating big water users such as developers and utilities. But the bill would enable lawmakers to interfere early and often as the districts shape their spending plans. And Gov. Rick Scott would have more authority over direct spending — having the power, for example, to approve any budget transfers at the agencies greater than $1 million. This level of micromanaging undermines the purpose of regulating the state's distinct watersheds at the regional level. And it amounts to a political shot from Tallahassee aimed at keeping local officials in line.

Legislators could amend the bill — for better or for worse — but really, why bother? The sound course is the simplest one: Repeal last year's law, withdraw the spending caps and put the districts in charge of their own budgets. Scott boxed himself and legislative leaders into a corner with last year's cuts. He should not be rewarded with more revenue that makes it even easier for the governor and Legislature to collude over the use of the state's most precious resource. The focus should be on preserving local control. This governor and Legislature already recognize the need for more money.

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