Politics & Government

Lawmakers want up to $200 million annually for 20 years to clean Everglades

An egret takes off at sunrise from the shallows of Snake Bight in Florida Bay in Everglades National Park in this 2007 file photo.
An egret takes off at sunrise from the shallows of Snake Bight in Florida Bay in Everglades National Park in this 2007 file photo. Miami Herald file photo

After Florida lawmakers drew two lawsuits and bad publicity last year for diverting Amendment 1 money to salaries and expenses instead of devoting it exclusively to land and water conservation, a House committee approved a measure Thursday that not only attempts to repair their record but aims to repair decades of damage to the Everglades.

The Legacy Florida Act, proposed by incoming Senate President Joe Negron and Rep. Gayle Harrell requires the state to set aside 25 percent of Amendment 1 funds — up to $200 million a year — to fund Everglades restoration projects over the next 20 years.

The carve out, HB 989, was approved unanimously by the House Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, and is expected to win easy passage in the Senate and be included in the Legislature’s final budget.

It will supply a stable funding source to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program, a 30-year partnership with the federal government to spend $13.5 billion on restoration projects to clean up the ecosystem that is central to the state’s water supply.

Although the CERP program was established in 2000, both state and federal governments have struggled to provide the funds necessary to finance the planning and construction needed for the elaborate restoration projects.

Harrell, R-Stuart, said by dedicating the money each year to the restoration efforts, legislators can avoid “the food fight every year” as they scramble for the money.

“This is an opportunity for us to really move the ball,” said Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Fort Myers, a co-sponsor of the bill at a press conference with members of the Everglades Coalition, which is backing the plan. “We love our federal partners, but we know they’re going to have challenges and continue to have challenges meeting all of the needs we are obligated to.”

Celeste De Palma, Everglades Policy Association for Audubon of Florida, said the bill will help jumpstart the lagging efforts to complete the projects needed to improve water quality and repair the system that supplies water to millions of Floridians.

If the bill passes, the Legislature will be required to spend up to $200 million for the restoration projects, including sending $32 million to the South Florida Water Management District.

Another $100 million will go to planning, design, engineering, and construction of the restoration projects. The bill requires that projects that reduce harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie or Caloosahatchee estuaries be given a priority.

“The faster we are able to complete these projects, the faster we will see this ecosystem come back to life,” De Palma said.

The earmark not only provides a consistent funding stream for repairing the state’s preeminent ecosystem, it also subdues the criticism from some of the most powerful environmental groups, such as the Everglades Coalition, a consortium of more than 50 environmental groups from all parts of Florida.

“There’s a lot of groups up here that advocate for certain positions, and when they feel they get they’ve gotten the best deal they hand without biting the hand that feeds them they tend to accept a victory,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, the House Democratic leader from West Palm Beach.

He said, however, that “$200 million is a victory and a great, positive step forward” but he expects the legislative leadership to continue to steer money into programs that will anger environmentalists instead of using all the Amendment 1 funds for land purchases to improve water quality.

“There’s a lot of special interests that don’t want to see land used in a way that doesn’t have a [commercial] purpose,” he said.

Legislative leaders in the Republican-controlled House and Senate uniformly opposed Amendment 1 when it was placed on the ballot by initiative petition in 2014. But after voters approved it by a 75 percent margin, lawmakers were obligated to devote one-third of the revenue from the documentary stamp tax on real estate transactions to the Land Acquisition Trust fund to pay for land and water conservation programs.

Two different environmental groups filed lawsuits last year, accusing lawmakers of steering millions of the nearly $750 million in the last fiscal year from the trust fund into state programs that they argued should have been paid for by general revenue funds. They said that the shift helped legislators finance pet projects and tax cuts at the expense of environmental programs.

Caldwell said he opposed Amendment 1 because he doesn’t like “budget by constitution” but now that the money is there carving out 25 percent of it for the Everglades “certainly does provide an opportunity.”

Members of the Everglades Coalition, who gathered in Tallahassee Thursday to promote the bill, said they hope the Legacy Florida Act will set a precedent for future legislatures to earmark Amendment 1 funds to other programs to protect the state’s ecosystem.

“If anything, this paves the way to show these funds can be directed to what they were intended to be,” said Jennifer Hecker, director of natural resource policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “We hope this sets a precedent to allow other Amendment 1 funds to be dedicated to restore funding to land acquisition programs, for critical waterways like our springs.”

Mary Ellen Klas: meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas