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Senator seeks $100 million Florida Forever

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – At least $100 million a year would be set aside for Florida Forever, the state's most prominent land-preservation fund, under a measure filed by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.

Bradley's proposal (SB 370) would annually designate a portion of the state's Land Acquisition Trust Fund for the Florida Forever program, which in the past received as much as $300 million a year but for nearly a decade has fallen out of favor among lawmakers.

Bradley, who chairs the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee, said in prepared statement the bill meets the demand of the “overwhelming majority of Floridians.”

“Floridians are blessed with some of the most unique ecosystems in the world, from springs to the Everglades to coral reefs to world class beaches and rivers,” Bradley said. “As our population continues to explode, we have an obligation to preserve these unique ecosystems for our children and grandchildren. The Florida Forever program helps us fulfill this obligation.”

The bill doesn't have a House version but drew praise Monday from environmentalists.

“Florida voters have made it clear they want more funding for parks, wildlife corridors, and environmentally important natural areas like wetlands,” said Aliki Moncrief, Executive Director of Florida Conservation Voters. “I hope that SB 370 is the first sign of the Senate's renewed commitment to continuing Florida's legacy of acquiring critical natural areas before they are lost forever.”

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida and a prominent environmental lobbyist, called the proposal a “major commitment” and the first seen in years from legislative leaders.

Bradley's proposal would be added to a law known as "Legacy Florida," which dedicates up to $200 million a year toward Everglades and Lake Okeechobee projects out of money put into the trust fund. The law also directs $50 million a year for the state's natural springs and $5 million each year for Lake Apopka.

Voters in 2014 approved a constitutional amendment that requires a portion of documentary-stamp tax revenues go to land and water conservation. That money goes into the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.

The Department of Environmental Protection has estimated that the real estate documentary taxes used to fund the Land Acquisition Trust Fund will generate $862.2 million next fiscal year. The agency has recommended Gov. Rick Scott include $50 million for Florida Forever in his budget proposal for the 2018 session.

Since 2001, Florida Forever has been used to purchase more than 718,000 acres for $2.9 billion. But the program has languished since the recession and as some key legislators have questioned the need for Florida to buy more land while struggling to manage the land it already owns.

Meanwhile, environmental groups continue to pursue a lawsuit that argues lawmakers have not properly carried out the 2014 constitutional amendment because of a limited amount of spending on land buying and preservation. The case is expected to go to trial next summer.

The environmental groups --- the Florida Wildlife Federation, St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida and the Sierra Club --- contend the money was improperly diverted from conservation purposes to agency staffing and operational expenses.