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Environmentalists urge Florida lawmakers (again) for land money

It’s been five years since voters overwhelmingly passed a measure that was intended to set aside $300 million for land preservation. Environmentalists are still waiting for lawmakers to abide.
Sugar cane grows in a large field owned by the US Sugar Corporation as a rain storm rolls in over Clewiston in August 2014. U.S. Sugar, along with other sugar giants in Florida, are refusing to sell land to build a water-holding reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, setting up a power struggle with state lawmakers over the clean-up of the Everglades.  [Sam Owens | Tampa Bay Times]
Sugar cane grows in a large field owned by the US Sugar Corporation as a rain storm rolls in over Clewiston in August 2014. U.S. Sugar, along with other sugar giants in Florida, are refusing to sell land to build a water-holding reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, setting up a power struggle with state lawmakers over the clean-up of the Everglades. [Sam Owens | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Nov. 5, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — A proposal to designate $100 million a year of voter-approved money to the Florida Forever conservation program began moving through Senate committees Monday.

However, even after past funding proposals failed and as legislative leaders remain vague about future spending, environmentalists are pushing for three times that amount, seeking to match what Florida Forever received annually more than a decade ago.

“We would like to see $300 million a year, but obviously Sen. (Linda) Stewart is doing us a huge service by helping to advance the conversation,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters.

“Voters handed something over to lawmakers, kind of on a silver platter,” Moncrief said, referring to a 2014 constitutional amendment that set aside money for land and water conservation. “We don’t have a lot of time left, but we do have 15 years left of the Water and Land Conservation Amendment. The more of that that can be allocated to Florida Forever, the better.”

RELATED: Lawmakers undermine voter intent of constitutional amendment on environment

Moncrief spoke at the Capitol during a midday news conference Monday marking the fifth anniversary of voters overwhelmingly approving the constitutional amendment, which earmarked a portion of real-estate documentary stamp taxes for 20 years to buy and maintain land and water.

After the news conference, the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted unanimously to support the measure (SB 332) sponsored by Stewart, D-Orlando, that would designate $100 million of the money to Florida Forever. The bill is filed for consideration during the 2020 legislative session, which starts Jan. 14.

Stewart said Florida Forever funding is “desperately” needed to preserve the state’s natural infrastructure.

“My bill provides a stable annual funding floor for the Florida Forever, rather than subjecting the program to an annual legislative fight that we tend to have to deal with each and every year,” Stewart said.

Florida Forever in the past was funded at $300 million a year. But lawmakers reduced funding for the program during the recession a decade ago, with some arguing the state had to prioritize money to manage land already in state hands.

The reduction in funding helped spur the drive for the 2014 constitutional amendment.

Last week, Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said it was too early in the budget process to put a dollar figure on how much will go toward Florida Forever during the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which starts July 1.

“It’s certainly prioritized," Galvano told reporters during the annual Associated Press pre-session gathering. “Whether we hit a specific number, I can’t predict at this point.”

In the current fiscal year, the budget includes $34.5 million for Florida Forever.

Since voters approved the constitutional amendment, lawmakers have earmarked from what is known as the Land Acquisition Trust Fund about $200 million a year for Everglades protection; $64 million a year for a reservoir project in the Everglades Agricultural Area; $50 million a year for the state’s natural springs; and $5 million a year for Lake Apopka.

The documentary-stamps tax was projected to generate $2.76 billion in the current fiscal year, of which more than $906 million would go into the trust fund.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has requested annual environmental funding of $625 million a year for the next three years.

On Monday, backers of the amendment expressed concerns about a separate proposal for the 2020 legislative session by Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, that would allocate $50 million a year to counties recovering from Hurricane Michael.

Montford’s proposal (SB 722) would allow the Department of Environmental Protection to use the money for shoreline protection, reforestation, ecosystem management, debris removal and pollution mitigation, which could include wastewater infrastructure.

Stewart’s bill would prohibit the use of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund dollars from being used for a variety of state agency expenses, an issue that has been the subject of a long-running lawsuit. Environmentalists contend that lawmakers have improperly used the money for such things as agency expenses.

On Sept. 9, a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal overturned a ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, who said lawmakers improperly diverted money from the 2014 constitutional amendment.

The appeals court said Dodson erred when he ruled that money from the amendment could only be used on land purchased after the voter-approved measure took effect.

-- Jim Turner

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