Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday vetoed a controversial bill that would have changed the state’s policy for Everglades restoration and that critics had derided as catering to the sugar industry around Lake Okeechobee.
In his veto letter, the governor wrote “the bill that was ultimately passed by the Legislature is an improvement over what was initially filed,” but that it created “unnecessary and redundant regulatory hurdles” that could compromise the execution of Everglades restoration projects.
Senate Bill 2508 was supported by outgoing Senate President Wilton Simpson, who is now running for agriculture commissioner. The bill, which was introduced halfway through the regular session, received significant public pushback, and lawmakers watered down some of the language after DeSantis threatened to veto an earlier version of the measure.
The initial bill would have made the South Florida Water Management District — the state agency that works most closely with the federal government on Everglades Restoration — demonstrate with each expenditure that it was not hurting water supply interests, namely agriculture.
After opponents swarmed legislators with nearly 40,000 petitions and more than 1,200 phone calls, senators reversed course, removing provisions in the bill that advocates said would have led to toxic discharges, more Red Tide blooms and dead fish on beaches.
Still, advocates said the final version of the bill would have knelt to agriculture interests and been detrimental for Florida’s conservation and environment.
DeSantis on Wednesday announced the veto to loud applause during a news conference in Fort Myers Beach. “I’ve heard you; we’ve vetoed that today,” he said.
In a statement, Jonathan Webber, the legislative and political director of Florida Conservation Voters, said their group and others had urged the governor to veto the bill.
“The Governor made the right decision today, and hopefully, this will be a signal to lawmakers to stop using legislative tricks to sneak harmful environmental policy past the Florida public,” Webber said. “We are watching.”
In 2017, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 10 in an attempt to respond to the economically disastrous surges of blue-green algae that have haunted coastal communities.
Since then, the Army Corps of Engineers has been working on a new set of rules that would reduce the amount of polluted water it discharges from Lake Okeechobee into tributaries to the east and west.
The plan, developed over the last three years, would reduce the discharges by more than a third, and it would triple the amount of water sent south to recharge the thirsty Everglades and restore healthy conditions to Florida Bay.
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Although the rules have been in development for three years, the change was proposed this year, at a time when Simpson, a Trilby Republican and an industrial egg farmer, is running for agriculture commissioner. Simpson backed the measure, and it was sponsored by Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, a citrus farmer who is set to become president of the Senate in 2024.
Farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area have argued that the new reservoir would deprive them of the water they need for irrigation, and some have sued the federal government over the issue.
The backlash to Senate Bill 2508 was swift.
Unlike the normal committee process, in which bills receive hearings and the chance for public debate in multiple committees, the bill was heard in just one committee. Advocates called out lawmakers for cutting back-room deals with agriculture interests, and members of the South Florida Water Management District called it a “sneak attack.”
“I’m happy to have a conversation about policy change, that’s what the Legislature is for, but to sneak it through like that is egregious and the bill should have been vetoed on that principle alone,” Webber said.
DeSantis also issued a rare rebuke to senators in February, threatening to veto the original bill if it passed.
“Rather than advancing legislation seeking to affect a major change in policy, SB 2508 is being rammed through the budget process, short-circuiting public engagement and leaving affected agencies in the dark,” DeSantis wrote.
Kelly Cox, director of Everglades policy at Audubon Florida, said sometimes the environment is looked at as separate or counter to other interests, though she said there’s bipartisan recognition that the environment is a vital part of Florida’s economy.
“When you try to have this sort of combative legislative process that tries to pit one against the other, I think this veto really shows that’s not something that’s within the will of the voters and the constituency,” Cox said.
But the veto also drew criticism.
Ryan Rossi, director of the South Florida Water Coalition, said the veto was based on “narrow, inaccurate concerns.”
”By vetoing this legislation, Gov. DeSantis has disappointed the more than seven million people in South Florida that depend on a stable supply of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee,” Rossi said in the statement.
Miami Herald staff writer Alex Harris and News Service of Florida contributed to this article.