A lthough Florida lawmakers had more than a $1.2 billion surplus to use in the new state budget, environmental groups say the 2014 Legislature shorted conservation efforts in several critical areas, including the protection and restoration of state springs.
The Everglades, Lake Okeechobee and related waterways were the big winners in the 2014-15 budget (HB 5001) that is awaiting a final review by Gov. Rick Scott.
The Everglades-related projects received more than $165 million in funding along with an additional $90 million over the next three years to revamp the Tamiami Trail across South Florida, improving water flow in the Everglades.
But springs funding was less generous, with lawmakers only agreeing to $30 million, although Scott had asked for $55 million. They also rejected a Senate bill that would have provided nearly $380 million to help protect Florida’s springs.
Land-buying programs, including the Florida Forever initiative, received only $17.5 million in guaranteed funding, although lawmakers also agreed to provide an additional $40 million if it can be generated through the sale of non-conservation state property.
The lack of funding for land conservation and springs protection is already being cited by environmental groups as reasons for supporting Amendment 1 on the November ballot that would require the state to set aside one-third of the real estate transaction tax each year for conservation funding. The amendment, if approved by 60 percent of the voters, is projected to provide more than $10 billion over the next two decades.
“Water and land conservation in Florida deserves a stable, dedicated source of funding,” said Laurie MacDonald, a state program director for the Defenders of Wildlife and chair of the Florida Forever coalition. “This year’s budget is another perfect example of why it is so important for voters to say yes on Amendment 1, the Water and Land Conservation Amendment, this November.”
Janet Bowman of The Nature Conservancy said it was a “disappointment” that the Legislature did not embrace the Senate’s ambitious plan on springs protection and funding. She also said it was surprising that lawmakers did not meet Scott’s request for at least $55 million in springs funding.
However, she said the reluctance to support a more expansive move in water resource policy was a result of the declaration by the incoming legislative leaders, Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, who will become the next House speaker in November, and Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who will be the next Senate president, that water policy will be a focus of their administrations.
Although the Florida Forever funding will not be close to the $300 million a year it once enjoyed, Bowman said she is more optimistic that in the coming budget year the state can generat e additional money through the sale of non-conservation lands. The state has already announced the sale of a former state hospital in Palm Beach County for $15.6 million, as part of the overall effort to generate some $40 million for the land conservation program.
The state Department of Environmental Protection tried a similar scheme this year by trying to sell “surplus” conservation lands. But that effort fell through when objections were raised about selling land previously acquired for environmental reasons.
Another land conservation effort approved by lawmakers that did not get much publicity, Bowman said, was language in the annual budget bill that will also let the state water management districts use some $20 million in unspent money from previous years for land acquisition projects in the coming year, including those aimed at water resource protection.
With the prospect of voter approval of Amendment 1, Bowman said it could mean more money for the Everglades, springs restoration, Florida Forever and other environmental initiatives in the coming years. But she said that will depend on how lawmakers react to a passed amendment.
“It will increase the pot. But with more money comes the issue of how it’s allocated,” Bowman said. “The devil is in the details and the implementation.
“If the amendment passes, it creates a great opportunity for the Legislature to look at what our resource protection priorities are and to reinvest in protecting land and water resources.”