TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Lawmakers are continuing to work on restocking Florida Forever, the state’s once-prized land preservation program.
However, Florida Forever spending is shaping up to be a big part of the environmental budget differences the House and Senate will have to settle in the coming weeks.
The House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday unanimously backed a wide-ranging proposal (HB 7063) that would gradually raise the annual allocation to Florida Forever, starting at $57 million in the 2019-2020 fiscal year.
The move came less than a week after the Senate voted to set aside $100 million a year for Florida Forever starting in the 2018-2019 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
“We’re going to get together and try to make our case the best we can for the policy that’s in there. I think it’s all a good policy,” said Rep. Matt Caldwell, a North Fort Myers Republican who is sponsoring the House proposal.
Despite the $57 million figure, Caldwell’s bill would allocate $200 million a year toward Florida Forever. However, until 2029, chunks of that allocation would go to reducing existing debt payments.
The money going into Florida Forever would be directed toward land acquisition and would gradually increase to $110 million in the 2023-2024 fiscal year and $200 million starting with the 2029-2030 budget.
Caldwell’s proposal also would keep in place bonding approved during the 2017 legislative session for a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area and allow local governments to administer rural-lands protection easement programs with assistance from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Aliki Moncrief, executive director of the Florida Conservation Voters, said she was “most excited” about the part of the bill regarding land acquisition.
“Land acquisition is a really important and unfortunately an under-used tool sometimes in Florida,” said Moncrief, who backed a 2014 voter-approved amendment that directs one-third of an existing real-estate tax toward the land and water conservation.
“When you buy land around springs, for example, and you make sure that those lands stay in conservation, instead of being turned into gas stations or developments, you’re actually protecting the springs and you’re protecting our underground resources,” Moncrief said.
But Caldwell’s policy changes have drawn some concern.
Julie Wraithmell, interim executive director with Audubon Florida, said language in the proposal expands when attorney fees can be awarded in outside challenges, which she said could have a “chilling effect” of keeping people from questioning agency actions.
“The little guy who is challenging an agency, yes currently they can be assigned attorney costs from the agencies, but only if their challenge is decided to be an improper purpose, the equivalent of a frivolous lawsuit but at the administrative law level,” Wraithmell said.
Caldwell said after the meeting he will continue to work to address concerns with the proposal, which must still go before the House Appropriations Committee.
Caldwell also said he expects any talks between the House and Senate about Florida Forever to include discussions of funding for the St. Johns River.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, is sponsoring the Senate proposal to spend $100 million a year on Florida Forever. He also has a separate proposal (SB 204) to use the voter-approved money to bump funding to $75 million a year for the state’s springs and to put an additional $50 million toward restoration of the St. Johns River, its tributaries and the Keystone Heights lake region in North Florida. The Senate could pass that bill Wednesday.
Caldwell’s proposal also includes a five-year beach management plan, which doesn’t include funding.
Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, has advanced to the Senate floor a measure (SB 174) that would provide $50 million a year for beach projects.
“Nothing is insurmountable,” Caldwell said. “It puts us again in play on a number of issues where we both have interest.”