Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Amendment 1 backers rally for land buying

Posted By on Tue, May 26, 2015 at 6:47 PM

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Environmentalists plan to hold rallies across Florida this weekend, again calling on lawmakers to boost the amount of money for land acquisition, Everglades restoration and natural-springs protection.

Supporters of the 2014 ballot initiative known as "Amendment 1" have announced 10 locations – Bradenton, Fort Myers, Jacksonville, Melbourne, Miami, Ocala, Orlando, Sarasota County, Stuart and Tampa – where they intend to hold rallies Saturday. That is two days before lawmakers start a special legislative session to negotiate a budget.

"Hopefully legislators will see that people care about how Amendment 1 dollars are spent," Audubon Executive Director Eric Draper, a lobbyist on environmental issues, said in an email.

Land buying wasn't a priority for Republican legislative leaders during this spring's regular session, which ended abruptly last month with the House and Senate at an impasse on health-care issues.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, was among lawmakers noting that the Amendment 1 funding will be addressed during budget conference talks during the special session.

Draper will participate Wednesday in a media call with officials from the Everglades Trust and the Florida Oceanographic Society to discuss how the state could move forward in buying land south of Lake Okeechobee.

The South Florida Water Management District Governing Board voted May 14 to terminate an option to purchase 46,800 acres in the Everglades from U.S. Sugar Corp.

Environmentalists had called the land vital in helping to reduce pollutants out of Lake Okeechobee and to bring more water through the Everglades.

Similar land-buying calls, which included a brief concert outside the Capitol in April featuring musician Jimmy Buffett, were attempted with little success during the regular session.

The voter-approved Amendment 1 is projected to generate more than $700 million during the upcoming next fiscal year for land and water conservation, about $200 million more than what lawmakers allocated for such uses in the current year.

The House and Senate have proposed using large chunks of the money to continue the daily operations of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

As for land acquisition, during the regular session the House proposed selling $205 million in bonds for the Florida Forever program, with about half of the money going toward water resources, the state's natural springs, Kissimmee River restoration, and ranchland preservation.

The Senate offered $37 million for land acquisition, which included Kissimmee River restoration and springs preservation.

While environmental sought more money for land-buying, they also have other concerns about the legislative proposals.

Janet Bowman of The Nature Conservancy had hoped for a higher base level of funding to manage existing lands in state hands.

"In evaluating Amendment 1 spending it is important to look at the specific functions funded with Amendment 1 money and whether the functions are integral to achieving the purposes set forth in the amendment," Bowman said in an email. "For example, DEP can't buy land under the Florida Forever program if it doesn't have staff to process the land deals and manage the program. Similarly, increasing the amount of prescribed fire on conservation land requires additional equipment and personnel costs to accomplish."

The House has pitched $18 million for water-management districts to manage land, while the Senate didn't specify a similar proposal in its spending plan during the regular session. The House also offered a $25 million line item for the Rural and Family Land Protection Program, an item that the Senate didn't include in its proposed budget.

Meanwhile, the Senate proposed $38.5 million to control invasive plants, with the House offering $24.8 million.

"The folks that voted for Amendment 1 expect new land and water resource protection beyond the status quo and the Florida Legislature still has the opportunity to meet this expectation in a number of ways —- through increased funding above 2014 levels for land management, Rural and Family Lands and Florida Forever funding and springs protection," Bowman said in the email.

Supporters of the 2014 constitutional amendment pitched it as a 20-year funding plan to replenish the Florida Forever program. Florida Forever, which uses bonds backed with revenue from the documentary stamps, authorizes lawmakers to spend up to $300 million a year for preservation.

The special session will start Monday and could last through June 20.

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