The Florida Legislature blew a historic opportunity to take a serious step in cleaning up the state's natural springs. The $30 million lawmakers approved for next year is a token effort that will do little to slow the deterioration of these vital habitats. Lawmakers sided with developers and the fertilizer industry over public health, fishing and tourism. They ignored the impact on property values and the security of the state's drinking water supply. Instead, lawmakers cared more about political maneuvering and campaign contributions than repairing environmental damage.
The speed of the collapse of a bipartisan Senate bill on the springs was remarkable even for a Legislature that often acts as a subsidiary for the state's most powerful industries. The Senate proposal called for steering $371 million a year toward a wide-ranging cleanup effort. The state would have allowed more local bans on using fertilizer on lawns and created protection zones around critical springs, removed old and leaky septic tanks, restored the flow and health of the springs and crafted long-term plans for cleaning up everything from wastewater plants to farming operations. State and local governments would have been true partners in prioritizing the cleanup and following through on restoration projects that would take years.
None of this caught the interest of House Speaker Will Weatherford or Gov. Rick Scott. Neither lifted a finger to save the Senate bill or even to accept the watered-down version that the Senate ultimately adopted by a unanimous vote. The final bill did away with the dedicated funding that is essential for addressing the springs on a statewide scale. The cleanup plans were pushed off for years. Rural counties where septic tank pollution is the worst got off the hook. And two areas of the Panhandle were relieved of the responsibility to provide local matching money for the cleanup effort. Even then the House refused to take up the bill. Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he wanted to leave that job to the incoming speaker.
The budget lawmakers sent to Scott still includes $30 million for springs restoration — state money that could be leveraged against other sources that could raise tens of millions of dollars in additional funds for the cleanup effort. But that is not nearly enough money to meet the challenges, and the work would come without the broad framework for coordination that the Senate bill provided. Yet again, the state is relying on a halting approach that hinges on the generosity of future legislatures.
The Legislature's failure also sent an inconsistent message on environmental protection. While the Senate decimated its original springs bill and the House failed to act, lawmakers included about $249 million in the budget for Everglades-related restoration projects. That will pay for cleanup work in the Indian River Lagoon and cover the state's share of elevated portions of Tamiami Trail, which will help move more water south into the lower Everglades. Spending nearly 10 times as much on the Everglades as the springs shows a lack of balance and priorities.
This Legislature and governor failed miserably to meet the expectations they set in advance of the session and the opportunities the recovering economy provides to pass a meaningful springs bill. They also tore at the fabric of a broad coalition that worked for months to craft an ambitious bill. The House had no reasonable excuse to wait, and Scott has no excuse for failing to champion even the stripped-down version of the Senate legislation. The best anyone can hope for is that this year's breakdown will inspire an even bolder attempt next year — after the November elections.