Florida Legacy Act Passes

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More Amendment 1 Funds for Everglades Restoration:

In 2014, Florida voters overwhelmingly (75%) approved an amendment to the state’s constitution that was designed to solve many of the state’s environmental woes by providing enough funding to cover everything from purchasing land from Big Sugar to Everglades Restoration. Despite this, last year the Republican-controlled legislature siphoned nearly a third of those dollars for operating expenses for state agencies. Now, as the second budget cycle in Tallahassee since the passage of Amendment One comes to a close, it appears that lawmakers are finally beginning to listen to what voters wanted as two bills known as the ‘Florida Legacy Act’ passed on the last day of the legislative session.

Amendment 1 called for protecting land and water from development using one-third of the funds raised by the state’s documentary stamp tax on real-estate transactions. Voters believed it would have made upwards of $740 million available for land purchases. But last year state lawmakers put $237 million of that towards things like salaries and expenses for state agencies, prompting two lawsuits.

However, though last year’s budget allocated only about $50 million for land purchases – a fraction of the $300 million the state used to spend under the Florida Forever program that began under former Gov. Jeb Bush– it also put much needed funds toward maintenance of land the state already owns and appropriated money for projects related to Everglades restoration and to off-setting the negative effects of the water releases from Lake Okeechobee.

In February, Senator Bill Galvano, a Republican from Bradenton, responded to an editorial in the Bradenton Herald by saying that Amendment 1 is much more complicated than voters realize.

“Amendment 1 is more than a land acquisition mandate,” he said. “It also requires the Legislature to restore conservation and other lands, protect water resources, and improve water quality, because protecting Florida’s environment requires a multifaceted approach. Government owns approximately one out of every three acres in this state, and pervasive environmental problems persist. The language of Amendment 1 vocalizes this complexity, and our actions as your Legislature will continue to reflect the goal of protecting all of Florida’s natural beauty, not just stockpiling land.”

Also in February, United States Representative Patrick Murphy called upon his state brethren to support using Amendment 1 Land Acquisition Trust Fund dollars for Everglades restoration projects that would move more water south.

“Our waterways are once again in crisis after heavy rainfall has led to massive runoff, with discharges from Lake Okeechobee polluting the St. Lucie Estuary and Indian River Lagoon. While I continue to push for funding and authorization of critical Everglades restoration projects on the federal level, we also have more work to do on the state level,” Murphy said. “I am disappointed to see that after 75 percent of voters – 4.2 million Floridians – voted for Amendment 1, this funding has not been used to advance land acquisition and conservation efforts. I am proud to support legislation introduced by my Treasure Coast colleagues State Senator Joe Negron and State Representative Gayle Harrell to make sure these funds are used as Florida voters intended, improving the health of our local waterways and the entire Everglades system.”

 Negron and Harrell introduced two bills into the Florida House and Senate for that purpose – SB 1168 and HB 989. The two bills, collectively called the ‘Florida Legacy Act’ would provide at least $200 million per year from Amendment 1 funds for Everglades restoration, along with $50 million for springs restoration. Both bills were the last ones to pass the state legislature last Friday – the last day of this year’s legislative session – along with the rest of the state’s $83 billion budget.

With an improved real estate market creating $902 million in Amendment 1 funds available this year, this means the Legislature will spend $205 million on Everglades-related projects, up from $79 million last year. Another $50 million will go into springs restoration and $35 million in rural and family lands, and $92 million on land acquisition.

But environmentalists are still unhappy with the Legislature’s decision to spend $188 million in Amendment 1 funds on state agencies, claiming this was done so that general revenue funds can be freed up to finance other projects in the state’s budget.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, defended the decision, saying it is “almost unheard of that your administrative expenses be less than 10 percent” and that “this budget spends 3 percent of Amendment 1 funds on salaries and expenses”.

In an opinion piece to the Naples Daily News on Saturday, Robert Moher, President and CEO Conservancy of Southwest Florida, urged state lawmakers to go even further and dedicate $300 million of Amendment 1 dollars to the state’s Florida Forever land acquisition program, to buy land within the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) to provide for conveyance, storage and treatment of at least 1 million acre feet of water and “to put a ‘meaningful regulatory reform’ plan in place to stop pollution loading at its source”.

Keri Hendry Weeg