State lawmakers seek changes to Forever Florida funding

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More money would be set aside for land conservation under a House bill rolled out Monday, with some environmentalists contending the proposal could hinder Senate President Joe Negron's push to speed construction of a water-cleaning reservoir in the Everglades.

House Government Accountability Chairman Matt Caldwell, whose committee unanimously approved the measure (PCB GAC 17-06), rejected the notion that the proposed changes to the state's Florida Forever land-conservation program are tied to the Senate's proposed $1.5 billion reservoir project (SB 10).

Instead, Caldwell said the proposal refocuses the Florida Forever program, once the primary program for land acquisition in the state, within a 2014 voter-approved constitutional amendment. That constitutional amendment requires using a portion of real-estate documentary stamp taxes for conservation.

"The Florida Forever bill is focusing that statute just on land acquisition for conservation purposes," the North Fort Myers Republican said. "Building reservoir features, any kind of capital projects, really is something outside of land conservation. Conservation is about using the resources, the lakes, beaches, development avoidance or wildlife corridors. That's really a different creature than the Everglades restoration, the actual hard infrastructure that goes into Everglades restoration."

Under the bill, the Florida Forever money would go toward the acquisition of conservation lands on what is known as the Acquisition and Restoration Council priority list and through the Florida Communities Trust and the Rural and Family Lands Protection programs.

The Florida Communities Trust, within the Department of Environmental Protection, and the Rural & Family Lands Program, an agricultural-land preservation program within the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, would both get larger portions of money than under the formula currently used to distribute the real-estate tax revenue.

The proposal also would prevent voter-approved money from being used to acquire land on water management districts' priority lists and would prevent districts from using the money for capital projects and for land management.

Conservationists envision the Florida Forever bill, which doesn't have a Senate companion, and Negron's reservoir plan being part of overall budget talks.

Yet the removal of water management districts to use the money for capital projects also has conservationists somewhat split.

David Cullen, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said voter-approved money shouldn't be used to cover the South Florida Water Management District's operational responsibilities, which would include maintenance of the proposed reservoir.

"That's basically what water management districts are supposed to be doing," Cullen said.

However, Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said the removal of water districts' ability to use the money for capital projects could impact Negron's desired reservoir.

"In taking the water management districts out, it takes away an important part of the Florida Forever program that has been used to fund both land acquisition and construction of water projects, water-resource projects," said Draper, whose group hasn't taken a position on the bill. "It does have a relationship to what Sen. Negron is doing in Senate Bill 10."

Negron's water plan stems, at least in part, from polluted water being discharged from Lake Okeechobee and fouling the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and rivers east and west of the lake. The reservoir would help move water to the south instead of having it go into the other waterways.

The plan seeks to accelerate plans for the reservoir —- part of a larger ongoing Everglades project effort called the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan —- to clean water that can be sent toward Florida Bay.

The storage plan, which has also drawn questions from sugar farmers, politicians and residents south of the lake, would require a still-uncommitted 50 percent match from the federal government.

The Senate plan seeks $64 million in the state budget next fiscal year for the reservoir.

The House is opposed to part of the Senate proposal that could allow issuing bonds in future years to help pay for the work.

"I don't even understand how Negron's bonding proposal, which the (House) speaker opposes, would get done if this bill is adopted," Draper said of the Florida Forever bill.

Caldwell said Everglades restoration would still continue under a 2016 law known as the "Legacy Florida Act."

The act dedicates up to $200 million a year toward Everglades and Lake Okeechobee projects. The law also directs $50 million a year for the state's natural springs and $5 million each year for Lake Apopka.

"If we do something above and beyond that, my vision would be that it comes either from (general revenue) or it comes from amending Legacy Florida itself," Caldwell said.

The state's General Revenue Estimating Conference has estimated the documentary stamp tax will generate $822 million for the Land Acquisition Trust Fund in the next fiscal year. About $140 million would go to pay off existing debt.

Gov. Rick Scott, in backing the Senate water-storage plan, has also called for lawmakers to put up $200 million to help the federal government speed repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.

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