A Senate environmental committee has advanced legislation to set aside $20 million a year for projects to improve the water quality in rivers in Florida’s heartland.
The bill (SB 1400) would hand $20 million annually to the Department of Environmental Protection for designing or constructing projects that protect, restore or enhance Central Florida’s headwaters. According to Zephyrhills Republican senator, the bill sponsor, water in the region affects 32 county approximately half the state. Danny Burgess.
The money would be paid out of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund (LATF), and used to implement the Heartland Headwaters Protection and Sustainability Act. This outlines the expenditures. Environmental organizations are questioning whether the bill is a proper use for the fund in light of a 2015 lawsuit that questioned how the Legislature spent the funds.
The dispute was discussed Wednesday at a meeting by the Senate Agriculture, Environment and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee.
Dave CullenThe $20 million was appreciated by the Sierra Club of Florida lobbyist, John Sullivan. He argued that provisions on drinking water supply and stormwater management, as well as other projects, go beyond the conservation-and preservation purposes set out in a 2014 constitutional amendment.
“Our position is that the LATF is for the acquisition, restoration, management and improvement of conservation and recreation lands,” Cullen said.
Florida Conservation Voters’ Lindsay CrossBurgess was recommended by the organization to limit funding from the trust funds to environmental restoration and conservation. Or pull from existing land acquisition lists like Florida Forever.
“This would mean that money from the LTF could be used to protect a freshwater wetland and an upland buffer, and doing so will naturally maintain water storage and pollution reduction functions of the wetland,” Cross said.
Nearly 75% of voters voted for the 2014 amendment, which was supported by a coalition environmental nonprofits. In 2015, groups sued the Legislature, claiming that the Legislature had improperly used the funds.
A Leon County judge sided in favor of environmental groups and declared several expenditures made in 2015-2016 unconstitutional. An appeals court, however, sided with the Legislature and referred the case back to it to determine if expenditures made after the amendment was implemented were unconstitutional. A county judge rejected the lawsuit earlier this month, stating that the funds had been spent.
Despite pushback from environmental groups, Burgess’ bill received its second unanimous vote in the Senate committee process.
“As much as I definitely appreciate the environmental community wanting to put more protections in for the acquisition and trust fund I’m going to support this bill, because I just feel like we can’t ignore water quality,” said Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat.
Burgess thanked senators, environmental activists, and others for their constructive dialogue on the bill.
“I think there’s just a reasonable understanding of maybe some differing minds on how to approach the same goal,” Burgess said.
Next, the bill will be sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee. This is its last stop. A companion bill (available on the House side) is available.HB 603) carried by Fort Meade Republican Rep. Melony BellIt is currently awaiting its first of three hearings. It is scheduled for the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee.
If passed, both versions would be in effect on July 1st.