A bill committing Florida to spending $100 million a year on land acquisition and preservation through the Florida Forever Trust Fund got support at its first Legislative step Monday morning, with approval by the Florida Senate Environment Preservation and Conservation Committee.
Senate Bill 370, introduced by Committee Chairman Rob Bradley, an Orange Park Republican, flew through the committee with support from the Florida Land Acquisition Trust Fund and a handful of environment and conservation groups, with just a few concerns raised about whether the bill says enough about longterm planning, or whether purchases can be evenly distributed in the state.
Bradley hailed the bill as the answer to Florida voters who in 2014 overwhelmingly approved Amendment 1, dedicating more money for Florida Future — only to see meager appropriations in the three years since.
“It is I think long overdue… that we move forward aggressively in making sure we honor what the voters did in Amendment 1,” Bradley said.
The approval was one of two major environmental protection and conservation reform bills that the committee approved Monday. It also approved Sen. Linda Stewart‘s SB 316 that goes toward her desire to prevent the state’s Environmental Regulation Commission from using short-handed meetings to push through reductions in standards.
Both bills got broad support and 10-o votes at the meeting Monday.
“As we look at adding an astounding 1,000 new residents to our state each day, the time to do that is now,” Lindsay Cross, executive director of the Florida Wildlife Corridor said of Bradley’s proposed commitment of at least $100 million a year to land acquisition.
“His bill is a significant step forward to fulfilling the intent of the 2014 Water and Land Conservation Amendment,” Jonathan Webber, deputy director of Florida Conservation Voters said later in a statement.
Bradley’s bill requires $100 million a year, to be divvied up by a formula already on the books that requires 35 percent of the money to go toward the Florida Division of State Lands acquisition fund, 30 percent to be divided among the state’s water management districts, 21 percent to the Florida Communities Trust for acquisitions for local parks and open space, and smaller portions to seven other programs that include the Rural and Family Lands Protection and Greenways and Trails programs.
“At the end of the day, keep in mind that when money is spent pursuant to the Florida Forever Trust Fund,” Bradley said. “You are taking land that is currently under private ownership and either putting it under state ownership… or creating a conservation easement on that land so that it would not be developed in a manner that is inconsistent in conservation purposes or recreational purposes, or the enjoyment or betterment of the people of the state of Florida.”
There was some concern that too much of the money might go to Florida counties that, in Bradley’s words, begin with the letter M – Miami-Dade, and Monroe, home to most of the Everglades and the fragile reef systems. State Sen. Dave Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican, joked that he might introduce a friendly amendment renaming Orange and Seminole Counties as Morange and Meminole. State Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat, proudly offered that her county begins with an M, and said that voters’ frustration over the lack of commitment to the Florida Forever Trust Fund helped get her elected this fall.
Bradley expressed confidence in the process laid out to spend the money.
“The acquirer doesn’t just exist in one area of the state. The precious ecosystems don’t just exist in one area of the state. The entire state is unusual as an ecosystem,” Bradley said. “That’s why you have the Acquisition Restoration Council… and do it on a basis grounded in science. And really sometimes that ends up with money going to one area of the state or the other, but I think it’s less parochial.”
Stewart’s victory in the committee continues her push begun last year in response to a 2016 3-2 vote by the Environmental Regulation Commission to reduce water quality standards. The commission normally has seven members but had maintained two vacancies for many months, allowing for a three-vote majority.
Her SB 316 would require the governor to fill vacancies within 90 days, and also would require four votes at any time to change environmental regulations. There was some debate over whether it was proper to impose a number of required votes, even if that number on occasion represented a super majority rather than a majority of those currently on the panel. Stewart argued that reduced-sized panels should not be allowed to lower environmental standards, a position state Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, backed up.
“I think we’ve got to be extremely protective of our air quality and our water quality,” Farmer said.