A year after slashing Everglades funding, Florida lawmakers appear poised to give some back.
House and Senate budget negotiators this week agreed to set aside about $30 million for restoration projects. That's still $10 million short of Gov. Rick Scott's request but a major leap from the zero the Senate had initially penciled in.
Environmental groups praised the move as a positive sign, saying they were cautiously optimistic that it signaled a change in direction from last year's session, when lawmakers and Scott gutted Everglades and conservation land-buying programs, state growth management rules and other long-standing regulations.
Now, they're keeping their fingers crossed the trend will continue with a still-bigger target — a Senate bill that would lift spending caps lawmakers last year placed on the state's five water management districts, which are largely funded by property tax revenue.
The Florida Conservation Coalition calculated that the cap, placed on property tax rates that supply much of the districts' revenues, wound up shriveling budgets by nearly 40 percent, or $700 million. The law also shifted oversight of the agencies' spending to the Legislature.
Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida, said that even legislative leaders acknowledge that last year's measure went too far, threatening to cut into the districts' "core missions" of providing flood protection and a supply of clean water to the public and natural systems like the Everglades.
Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, acknowledged the ripple effects had run deeper than desired. The South Florida Water Management District, which oversees Everglades restoration, has tapped into reserve funds to cover shortfalls.
Alexander said he helped put the new bill together "because I felt like we needed to take another look at it and find a more sustainable policy. There are reserves that are just a bit out of balance and I think, longer term, that in order to meet the water resource needs, the water boards must keep the state waters clean."
While the bill would lift the caps on spending, it also leaves a final review of the district's budget largely to lawmakers — a provision environmentalists hope to see removed. They're supporting a proposal by Scott that largely restores the system that existed before last year's changes, leaving oversight of the districts under the governor.
Kirk Fordham, chief executive officer of the Everglades Foundation, said legislative authority only injects more politics into efforts to maintain funding for Everglades restoration and cleanup projects already expected to take decades.
But lawmakers also may be reluctant to give up newly won control over the districts, agencies that collect hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes and have pursued expensive projects or land-buys without legislative approval.
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Under Gov. Charlie Crist, the South Florida Water Management District sought an audacious $1.75 billion deal to buy out the sprawling empire of U.S. Sugar Corp. The deal, heavily criticized by lawmakers, was eventually downsized to a $197 million purchase of 26,800 acres.
But some environmental groups have questioned whether the Legislature's power grab will stand up under court challenge, saying the system of independent districts was established in the state Constitution. Environmentalists are banking on beefed up support to repair some of the losses from last session.
The Florida Conservation Coalition — created in November under the leadership of Bob Graham, a former Democratic governor and U.S. senator, and a number of influential former state executives — has made the water management rollback a priority.
They also give some credit to Scott, who told conservation groups in January that he had learned a lot in his first year and was vowing to make Everglades issues a priority.
With the state under pressure from federal judges, the governor last year outlined a plan to expand the network of artificial marshes used to reduce the amount of farm pollution flowing into the Everglades. Negotiations with federal agencies continue over the state plan, which was significantly smaller than one proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Scott followed up by proposing $40 million in restoration funding in his budget. That's still down from a peak of $100 million to $200 million in annual funding during the administration of former Gov. Jeb Bush but double what Scott proposed the previous year.