Friday, March 20, 2015

Legislative Update to the F.N.P.S. 2015 Session, Weeks 1 and 2

By the F.N.P.S. Policy and Legislation Committee

Conservation research on the recovery of
Florida Ziziphus (Ziziphus celata) is one of
the projects that this grant previously funded
Native Plant Conservation Funds

In drafting the Senate legislation to restructure trust funds to implement Amendment 1 (SB 584), the termination of the CARL Program Trust Fund within Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS) has created the unintended consequence of eliminating the $250,000 annual transfer from the DEP CARL Trust Fund to the DACS Plant Industry Trust Fund for the Endangered or Threatened Native Flora Conservation Grants program. FNPS lobbyist Sue Mullins met with DACS and DEP officials about the unfortunate by-product of this bill, and will meet with House Budget Chair Albritton to rectify the situation. We originally had $300,000 in our budget line item for the program, of which we expect to restore at least $250,000.

The bill restructures the trust funds to implement the constitutional requirement that documentary stamp taxes directed for environmental purposes must not be commingled with the General Revenue Fund and ensures that these revenues are not commingled with other revenue sources and can be tracked from distribution to expenditure. The bill terminates certain trust funds, including CARL, currently receiving documentary stamp tax revenue intended for expenditure on environmental programs.

Water

The House passed its water resources bill, HB 7003 by a
vote of 106-9 in Week 1 and sent the bill to the Senate. The bill offers very little for conservation or pollution reduction, and instead focuses on some controversial proposals related to the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee. It combines the Lake O phosphorous pollution control programs with the lake’s Basin Management Action Plan adopted under federally-mandated water quality laws, and preempts the use of a long-standing existing rule that could be used by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to set specific limits on pollution entering state waters. Its approach to Lake Okeechobee also centers on shifting more of the blame and burden to the federal government for the scheduled release of water into the lake.
 
Historic water flow in the Everglades ecosystem:
Lake Okeechobee collected water from the
northern Everglades region, which flowed into
the Everglades of the south. Today, this path
has been greatly altered and polluted, leading
to a host of environmental problems.

The Senate is continuing to work on its land and water bill, SB 918. The bill introduces springs legislation similar to what passed the Senate last year, which was to change water policy that determines when the minimum flow or level of spring water bodies were too low to be viable, as well as provide some progressive pollution control measures. The bill addresses water project funding by creating a new statewide Water Resource Advisory Committee that will give preference to water projects that have a measurable impact on improving water quality or water quantity, those in areas of greatest impairment, those of state or regional significance, those recommended by multiple districts or multiple local governments, those with significant monetary commitment from local or private sponsors, and those that are in rural areas of opportunity. FNPS considers this is a critical element of the bill.

The Senate bill does not include the Everglades or Lake Okeechobee provisions that the House bill contains. FNPS worked extensively with Senate staff on this legislation, specifically to set up the criteria for water project funding that would narrow the kinds of local projects eligible for A1 funds. We know from leadership in both chambers that some A1 dollars will inevitably be directed towards water projects, so the bill was crafted to try to make only those projects that are environmentally beneficial be eligible for funding from Amendment 1 dollars.

FNPS’ primary concern remains with the House’s approach to funding a majority of water projects with A1 dollars. Our estimate is that the FY 2015-2016 request is $1,196,953,572, which is much more than the estimated $757 million projected for doc stamp revenues this year and poses a serious risk that a major portion of the A1 dollars will be devoted to local “pipe and pump” water projects.

Amendment 1 Implementation 


Above: Tate's Hell State Forest, a Florida Forever project.
Florida Forever is the country's premier conservation,
water supply protection, and recreation lands acquisition
program. Investing in these resources is critical to
ensuring water quality and quantity, preserving working
lands, protecting wildlife, providing recreational outlets,
and improving the quality of life for all Floridians.
The Senate introduced its policy framework for Amendment 1 implementation. SB 586 is now out along with the legislation released in January that made “structural” changes to implement Amendment 1. Based on the December 2014 Revenue Estimating Conference, 33 percent of documentary stamp funding will amount to $757.7 million. SB 586 keeps existing programs including Florida Forever and the Rural and Family Lands program, as well as more funding for land management.

In the 2014-15 General Appropriations Act, the Legislature appropriated more than $3.5 billion to environmental programs. Currently, approximately 20% of documentary stamp tax revenues ($470.8 million) are distributed under s. 201.15, F.S., to trust funds supporting environmental programs. The legislation maintains existing documentary stamp tax distributions to affordable housing, transportation and economic development at their current effective percentages, however, as a result of the 33% distribution to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund required by the constitution, there will be less doc stamp revenue to distribute to the various other trust funds and General Revenue.

All legislative leaders and the Governor made reference to Amendment 1 on opening day of Session March 3. In his address to the House, Speaker Crisafulli said that while the intention of Amendment 1 is good, there is more to good stewardship than buying more land. “Buying up land that we cannot care for, that falls into disrepair or becomes a breeding ground for harmful invasive species is not a legacy that I am interested in leaving,” Crisafulli said. FNPS is already acting to counter claims that Florida’s existing public conservation lands are mismanaged. We are uniquely positioned to know how mistaken this claim is given the continuing role our members play on Land Management Review teams. FNPS is working with DEP to make a presentation to both the House and Senate on the state of Florida’s land management efforts, which are laudable given the limited resources made available to land management agencies. What other state can claim the number of awards our State Park system has received?

The Florida Water and Land
Conservation Amendment (A1)
was approved in November 2014
by 75% of the state's voters.

Senate President Andy Gardiner stressed the need for transparency in how the Amendment 1 money is spent and about the need to address water policy and land management in his opening day remarks. Gardiner has been a proponent of spending money on bike trails including the Coast-to-Coast Connector across Central Florida. “It’s not just the water — it’s the maintaining of these lands,” Gardiner said. “It’s the access for the public to those lands … as well as ecotourism, which I have talked about with bike trails.”

Sugar Land

The final impediment to implementing A1 as intended by voters may be the looming deadline of October 12, 2015 to purchase 26,100 acres of land owned by U.S. Sugar Corp. in the Everglades. The purchase is estimated to cost at least $350 million. The additional land is needed to store water during the rainy season and eliminate harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and provide water supply for the natural system. The SFWMD has the opportunity through a legal option to purchase a 46,800-acre parcel of land optimally located south of Lake Okeechobee, which is touted by Everglades advocates as a cost effective water storage solution to help solve Florida's water crisis. Advocates of this approach include the 56-strong-organization Everglades Coalition, and several SE Florida local governments.


Harvesters cutting sugar cane on U.S. Sugar Corp. land
In a strange alignment of allies and skirmishes, rival sugar company Florida Crystals Corp. is pushing back against the coalition of Everglades and local government advocates who are now running TV ads to use A1 dollars for the purchase of U.S. Sugar property south of Lake Okeechobee, by saying such an effort could “derail” ongoing Everglades improvement projects.

Tension has long existed between Florida Forever advocates and Everglades restoration advocates over environmental spending with limited dollars. The fact that there are $757 million on the table this year for the environment via Amendment 1 exacerbates that tension.

Growth Management 


The D.R.I. review process would be eliminated by SB562
Two bills sponsored by Senate Community Affairs Chairman Wilton Simpson that would alter the responsibility local governments have in approving large developments unanimously passed through the Senate Community Affairs Committee on March 10. SB 562 eliminates the older process of reviewing developments of regional impact (DRIs). The sponsor said it won't bring an end to the scrutiny of large projects, but it will have the effect of taking that review away from the state's 11 regional planning councils. Simpson’s bill would instead put DRI-sized developments through the state "coordinated review" known as sector planning that applies to other major developments. This process allows state agencies to study and comment on plans. SB 484, also sponsored by Simpson, does in fact eliminate the state’s 11 Regional Planning Councils and reassigns their duties to other state agencies or subdivisions, including the review of developments of regional impact. There are valid concerns that as presently written, these bills would further weaken what little is left of Florida’s growth management laws.
Legislative Monitoring

FNPS will continue to track these bills on your behalf, and seek ways to influence their modification or withdrawal.

---

Post, hyperlinks and images by Laurie Sheldon

No comments: