Column: Natural Florida on the rebound

After years of neglecting the environment, the Legislature this session began to change course.
After years of neglecting the environment, the Legislature this session began to change course.
Published May 7, 2013

As the dust settles from the 2013 legislative session, it is a good time to reflect on the Legislature's treatment of land and water resource protection in Florida. As a conservation advocate who has lobbied for environment and conservation issues for the last 10 years, I find some bright spots and a glimmer of hope that a dark period in Florida's history of environmental resource protection is coming to a close.

During the recession, the environment received a disproportionate hit both through budget cuts and revenue caps placed on the water management districts. For example, last year, the Florida Forever land acquisition fund received only $8.4 million compared to the historic funding level of $300 million per year. This year, the Legislature through the leadership of budget chairs Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, has provided $31 million in cash for land protection efforts: $20 million for the Florida Forever program, including $10 million for conservation acquisitions that buffer military bases, and $11 million to the Florida Forest Service to purchase conservation easements over agriculture land.

This represents three times the funding provided in 2012. The Everglades received a whopping $70 million in restoration funding, and $59.5 million was appropriated to local governments for water projects, for example, removing septic tanks and providing storm water treatment that will assist with water quality protection.

Finally, the Legislature added $10 million in budget conference to address springs restoration and protection, a need that is particularly critical and funding that is long overdue. While not perfect, the budget represents a respectable start to making the environmental budget whole after four years of neglect.

For the last three years, the Legislature focused on repealing existing growth management and other environmental regulation with few "no" votes standing in the way. From my perspective, the 2013 Legislature displayed a more thoughtful consideration of environmental measures. Several harmful proposals died in committee, including: bills limiting the ability of the state and local government to buy conservation lands (SB 584, HB 901) and bills to require the Cabinet to consider the conveyance of state lands to private landowners in exchange for less desirable lands (HB 33, SB 466).

In the water resource protection arena, the advocacy efforts of former Sen. Bob Graham and many environmental groups, and the leadership of Sens. Thad Altman, R-Viera, and Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, led to the removal of harmful wetland regulation and fertilizer ordinance pre-emption language in HB 999 that would make it more difficult to protect important water resources.

And, remarkably, the Citizens Insurance Reform Bill (SB 1770) championed by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, and Reps. Doug Holder, R-Venice, and John Wood, R-Winter Haven, contains language that helps protect our sensitive coastal areas by eliminating eligibility for new construction located seaward of the coastal construction setback line.

The legislative process worked as it should to air the flaws of policy changes that are against the interests of the majority of Floridians who care deeply about the land and water resources of Florida, and legislators are more responsive to these voices.

While there is reason for hope, much remains to be done. Citizens should take a few minutes in the coming months to remind their legislators and Gov. Rick Scott why it is important to reinvest in Florida's environment.

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Janet Bowman is director of legislative policy and strategies for the Nature Conservancy of Florida. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.