Policy Update by Eugene Kelly, Policy and Legislation Chair



When the 2023 legislative session closed with the traditional hanky-drop on May 5, it signaled the usual “mixed bag” of results for those of us who support native plant conservation and environmental protection. The good included $100 million budgeted for land conservation through the Florida Forever Program, and an additional $100 million to finance the purchase conservation easements through the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program (RFL). The bad included a continuing failure to address Florida’s water quality crisis by fully implementing the recommendations of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force. We have attempted to provide an itemized list of the good and bad of the 2023 session below, with a focus on the stuff we believe is most relevant to the FNPS mission to conserve native plants and native plant communities.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves! What does the “end of session” actually signify? Governing, and law-making (legislating!), are a continuous process. Wins and losses can be ephemeral, and are sometimes difficult to measure or even discern. There is no better indicator than the Governor’s decision to veto, without explanation, the $100 million that had been allocated by the legislature for RFL. With the stroke of a veto pen, joy was turned to sorrow and a perceived victory for conservation evaporated into thin air.

Next year, the legislature might smile upon RFL again and choose to provide funding, and maybe that round of funding will survive the veto pen. The only certainty is that such an outcome is unlikely if organizations like FNPS, and voters who place a priority on conservation, do not stand up and tell our elected officials what we want. What the end of the session actually means is that legislators have returned home to their district offices, and they have begun brainstorming what their legislative priorities will be during the session that begins in January 2024.

They will be assisted in that endeavor by lobbyists and other advocates who engage with them. If we want OUR concerns to be represented, then we had better be in the room, both figuratively and LITERALLY. That is why FNPS pays for the services of a professional lobbyist to represent us in Tallahassee. But her efforts alone will never be sufficient to counter all the powerful interests aligned against conservation and environmental protection. It is essential that we, the actual constituents of all those legislators, provide her with consistent back-up.

In the coming weeks, legislators will begin conducting their annual legislative delegation meetings. These meetings are typically conducted county-by-county, with the Representatives and Senators who serve the voters in that county attending. There is no better opportunity to meet and address your legislators face-to-face. Please remain alert for announcements of your legislative delegation meetings and plan to attend, and speak, if at all possible. The ability to speak at a delegation meeting often requires that you sign up in advance, usually by filling out a simple form available online. If you cannot attend a delegation meeting, then consider contacting your legislator, or their staff, over the telephone or via email. You can find their contact information at https://www.flsenate.gov/Senators/Find and https://www.myfloridahouse.gov/FindYourRepresentative. We are keeping an up to date list of Legislative Delegations at this blog post.

The FNPS Policy and Legislation Committee will continue working on your behalf to advance the FNPS mission; however, we need your assistance. Please add your voice to ours by engaging directly with your own legislators.

And now, without further ado, we provide a brief summary of the highlights and lowlights of the 2023 Legislative Session:

The Budget

At $117 billion, this session produced the largest budget in Florida history. And perhaps the best outcome ever for land conservation, despite the already-noted veto of $100 million allocated for RFL. Beyond the $100 million dedicated to Florida Forever, an additional $850 million was set aside for acquisitions within either the Ocala-to-Osceola or the Caloosahatchee-to-Big Cypress corridors. This is a big step towards advancing protection within two critical segments of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. There is a potential downside – the funding is only available for purchases made during the current fiscal year, and it could be extremely challenging to negotiate and execute land conservation projects of such geographic scale within such a limited time frame.

Funding to address water needs, including the water quality crisis but excluding Everglades restoration, totals $1.16 billion. $105 million of that total is set aside for projects to improve water quality in the Indian River Lagoon, where nutrient pollution has eliminated submerged aquatic vegetation across much of the estuary and led directly to the death-by-starvation of hundreds of manatees over the past couple winters. Spring restoration received the usual $50 million of annual funding required by previous legislation. The continued decline of our springs, and recent research conducted by the Florida Springs Council, demonstrate clearly that this level of commitment to restoring springs and spring run systems is woefully inadequate. Many of the spring projects being funded are poorly conceived and do not attack the most serious sources of nutrient pollution. Everglades restoration, the final category of funding for water resource needs, received $625 million.

More than $500 million was budgeted for “resiliency” planning and project implementation, in response to the impacts of flooding and sea level rise. Florida has maintained this level of commitment to resiliency for several years now. However, it is too early to render an informed assessment of how effectively these funds are being invested. Projects that fall under the resiliency umbrella include beach renourishment and dune restoration, in addition to armoring the coastline with seawalls.

A final budget item of direct relevance to FNPS is the $217,000 allocated for the Endangered and Threatened Native Flora Conservation Grants. Every year, FNPS is the lone voice speaking in support of this grant program, which is administered by the Division of Plant Industry. Although the sum provided pales in comparison to the funding directed towards research on imperiled, it provides meaningful support to some of our most important partners in plant conservation, including Archbold Biological Station and Bok Tower Gardens.

Good Bills

Senate Bill 724, entitled the Seagrass Restoration Technology Development Initiative, will fund the development and implementation of new approaches to more effectively restore seagrasses. If coupled with measures to reduce the nutrient pollution and other factors that contribute to the loss and degradation of these important submerged aquatic plant communities, we may see some much-needed recovery in Florida seagrass meadows.

House Bill 0111, and its companion in Senate Bill 1170, will finance Flooding and Sea Level Rise Vulnerability Studies. It is a partial answer to the concern we expressed previously about how the state will spend the many millions directed toward resiliency. It places a stronger emphasis on the use of “Living Shorelines” as a strategy for combatting coastal erosion, and will require the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to complete Sea Level Impact Projection studies for state-funded projects along the coastline, or otherwise subject to the impacts of sea level rise.

Bad Bills

Senate Bill 540 disempowers citizens from challenging proposed comprehensive plan amendments being considered by a county or municipality by requiring the payment of attorney fees to the “winning” party in the challenge. The far-reaching effects of this bill are already visible. Legal challenges to a number of proposed land use changes that would result in environmentally destructive development projects have already been dropped by the plaintiffs because they cannot risk the financial liability of losing to deep-pocketed development interests represented by expensive teams of attorneys. This appears to be the final nail in the coffin of responsible land use planning in Florida. Citizens are now virtually powerless in growth management decision-making for their own communities.

Another very bad bill wasn’t technically a bill at all. It was a “back-of-the-bill” provision added to Senate Bill 2502 during the last week of the session. The provision prohibits any local government from adopting or amending an ordinance that would regulate the application of fertilizer to turf grass by defining a period when such applications are prohibited. The major downside of this provision being attached to the budget bill is that it avoided any staff analysis, committee debate, or public comment. A representative of the TruGreen lawn maintenance company asked Senate President Kathleen Passidomo to add the provision to the budget at the last moment – so she did. The upside is that it expires when the budget does – in one year. Existing ordinances remain in effect. We should expect an attempt to make this preemption of local government authority permanent during the 2024 session.

Conclusions

We wish the list of good bills provided above was much longer. Our list of bad bills above could have been MUCH longer; we just settled on including the two most egregious examples that are of clear relevance to the FNPS mission. FNPS implored the Governor to veto both SB 540 and the offending line item that preempted local government fertilizer ordinances; he chose to sign both into law.

We believed there was a good chance he would veto the fertilizer ordinance preemption given his apparent support for expensive projects and initiatives to improve water quality in the Indian River Lagoon and elsewhere across the state. It is difficult to comprehend the reasoning behind such a decision when preventing pollution is much less expensive than cleaning it up, making fertilizer ordinances one of the most cost-effective solutions to nutrient pollution. As we strategize over how FNPS should approach this issue next year, it would help if the Governor chooses to provide an explanation for his decision. If he does not, then perhaps TruGreen will?

Please consider attending an upcoming meeting of your legislative delegation, and/or contacting your legislators directly, to let them know you support continued funding for land conservation and more direct action to reduce the nutrient pollution that is degrading our rivers, lakes and estuaries and killing submerged native plant communities. If you are concerned about the impacts of climate change and sea level rise on coastal wetlands and other native plant communities, tell them to take those threats seriously as well, and to take action against them.

As the Policy and Legislation Committee (Committee) continues to represent the interests of FNPS in Tallahassee and beyond, your assistance and personal engagement is greatly appreciated and can only make our efforts more effective. Please contact the Committee at policy@fnps.org if you want to participate more actively, or if we can provide some form of assistance to you or your chapter as you engage on local issues. Much of FNPS’ success in advocating for plant conservation and natural resource protection happens at the chapter level. 

 A couple of examples:
  1. the Hernando Chapter successfully coordinated with the Hernando County Board of County Commissioners and other conservation partners to amend their fertilizer ordinance to include a rainy season ban on applications of turf fertilizer containing nitrogen. It was approved in early June – less than a month before the legislature’s preemption went into effect on July 1;
  2. the Naples Chapter added their voice to others who objected to a proposal by the Army Corps of Engineers to build a massive system of flood control structures along their coastline. The ACOE is now reassessing their approach;
  3. the Pine Lily and Tarflower chapters have been embroiled since 2017 in a fight to prevent construction of a new toll road through the Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area, culminating thus far in passage of an amendment to the Orange County Charter to enhance protection of Split Oak, Split Oak remains intact, but is still under threat; and
  4. the Pawpaw Chapter worked with allies in Volusia County to extend the life of the Volusia Forever land conservation program during the 2020 election cycles.
A Policy Advocacy Handbook was developed by the Committee in 2019 to help members and chapters who want to become active participants in advocating for good governance. It can be downloaded at https://www.fnps.org/assets/pdf/pubs/policyadvocacyhandbook2019.pdf We hope you will take advantage of the opportunities available to you to help influence government decision-making, and stand ready to assist you whenever possible.

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