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Land, Water Funding Differences Move To Budget Chiefs

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Robin Sussingham
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

House and Senate negotiators have been unable to bridge key differences in their competing proposals to fund the environmental portions of the state budget.

Now, decisions about how to spread an increased pool of money, which is expected to be used for buying and protecting environmental lands and helping restore the state's natural springs and the Everglades, will be up to the House and Senate budget chairmen starting Wednesday.

Meanwhile, backers of the Water and Land Conservation ballot initiative known as Amendment 1 say they're still waiting for lawmakers to make a noticeable splash with additional money voters want spent on the environment.

Members of the House Agricultural & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee and the Senate General Government Appropriations Subcommittee agreed Tuesday, after four days of talks, that they could not finalize major portions of the environmental spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

A big difference remains in the divide over land acquisition. The House supports issuing bonds to raise additional money for land acquisition, an idea Senate leaders haven't supported.

"We believe it's a responsible move at this time," said House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Chairman Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula. "Money is cheap today. … Now is a good time to do it, (to) provide some significant investment into the environment."

Sen. Alan Hays, a Umatilla Republican who chairs the subcommittee that pieced together the Senate's Amendment 1 funding package, remains adamant that the state needs to "properly manage" the land already in government hands. He's also opposed to any long-term financing with the Amendment 1 dollars.

"As far as I'm concerned, every acre of land that is purchased from this point forward needs to have a specific reason why it's necessary to buy it," Hays said. "Not just nice to have, but necessary to buy."

The ballot initiative, which voters overwhelmingly approved in November, requires for the next 20 years that 33 percent of the proceeds from an existing real-estate tax, known as documentary stamps, go for land and water maintenance and acquisition across Florida.

For the upcoming year, the increased funding under Amendment 1 for such land and water programs will grow to more than $740 million, from around $470 million in the current budget year that ends June 30. The current year's funding includes daily operations within state environmental agencies.

Janet Bowman of The Nature Conservancy said the hope had been that lawmakers could emulate an effort last year that created a $231.9 million package to improve South Florida waterways. The 2014 funding package was devised as a way to improve water quality in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee river estuaries, which had been inundated with nutrient-heavy waters released from nearby Lake Okeechobee.

"That's really not apparent in this year's budget," Bowman said. "You'd be hard-pressed if you were dropped into the budget conference without knowing that Amendment 1 had passed. Where is the real increase in resource protection?"

One item for the budget chairs --- Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes--- will be fitting into a $50 million line item a list of local water projects that collectively total more than $1 billion from across Florida.

The Senate has also proposed $124 million through several line items toward restoration of the Everglades, including $20 million for improvements to the Kissimmee River. The House is at $57 million for Everglades projects, with no allocation for the Kissimmee River.

The House is putting up $15.1 million for the Florida Forever land acquisition program, while the Senate has proposed $37 million.

Sen. Thad Altman, a Rockledge Republican who has supported bonding to increase land acquisition money, said he's still advocating more a "robust" amount of money to buy environmentally needed land.

"We're far from where we need to be," Altman said. "A lot of members want to see more in terms of the implementation of Amendment 1 and land acquisition."

The Senate also wants $40 million for the restoration of the state's natural springs and $5 million from Amendment 1 to improve Lake Apopka. The House has proposed $2 million for Lake Apopka with no match for the springs.

Also, the House has proposed $20 million for the Conservation and Rural Lands Protection program and $15 million for the Okeechobee Restoration Agricultural Projects, both priorities of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island. The Senate has countered with less than $900,000 for the Rural Lands program, with the money coming from general revenue, and didn't put any money toward the Okeechobee projects.

Meanwhile, the House and Senate are both at $25 million for beach projects. State park upgrades would get $20 million under both plans. The House would fund the parks improvements fully from Amendment 1. The Senate would use $15 million from Amendment 1 and pull another $5 million from general revenue.