TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A plan to place a statue of civil-rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune at the U.S. Capitol as a representative of Florida and a measure to set aside $100 million a year for land preservation moved a step closer Wednesday to Senate approval.
With little comment, the Senate positioned the bills for votes next week. One of the measures (SB 472) seeks to have a statue of Bethune replace a likeness of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith at the National Statuary Hall in Washington.
“We’re one step closer. We’re going to get there this year,” said Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who is sponsoring the measure.
An identical House bill (HB 139) also has started moving and is next slated to go the House Appropriations Committee.
Smith, born in St. Augustine but with few adult ties to the state, has been one of Florida’s two representatives in the National Statuary Hall since 1922. The other representative is John Gorrie, widely considered the father of air conditioning.
The Legislature voted in 2016 to replace the Smith statue during a nationwide backlash against Confederate symbols in the wake of the 2015 shooting deaths of nine African-American worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C.
Despite agreeing to remove Smith, lawmakers were unable to come up with a replacement during the 2017 session, as the House did not move forward with any of the suggestions from the Great Floridians Program within the state Division of Historic Resources.
Bethune, whose resume included serving as an adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt, founded what became known as Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach. The university has offered to pay for the new statute.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, attached an amendment to the bill Wednesday to require the Smith statue be acquired and displayed by the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.
“I think it should be back in the state of Florida,” Lee said. “I think we have a Division of Cultural Affairs, within the secretary of state’s office, that can receive that important piece of Florida’s history and place it appropriately somewhere in a museum.”
Meanwhile, the Senate also is on the verge of approving a plan to spend $100 million a year on the Florida Forever land-preservation program. The bill (SB 370), sponsored by Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, would use money from a 2014 voter-approved constitutional amendment aimed at increasing land and water conservation.
“The ($100 million) number is not a magic number, but it is commensurate with when you look at how funds have been appropriated, via statute, whether it be (for) springs or the Everglades,” Bradley said.
In past years, lawmakers directed at least $200 million a year to the Everglades; $64 million for a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area; $50 million for the state’s natural springs; and $5 million for Lake Apopka.
The constitutional amendment directed that a portion of money from a real-estate documentary tax go into the land-acquisition trust fund. That is expected to generate $862.2 million next year.
As part of Bradley’s proposal, lawmakers would not be able to use the trust fund money for agency overhead, which has been a point on contention with backers of the 2014 amendment.
Bradley also has a separate measure (SB 204) to increase annual funding for the state's natural springs to $75 million and to set aside $50 million a year for the restoration of the St. Johns River, its tributaries and the Keystone Heights lake region in North Florida. The bill is also ready to go before the Senate.
Meanwhile, Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Rockledge, Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, and Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, are seeking another $50 million from the trust fund (SB 786 and HB 339) to help restore the condition of the Indian River Lagoon.
Also, Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, has taken over legislation (SB 174), initially filed by former Sen. Jack Latvala, that seeks $50 million a year for beach projects.