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House Panel Approves Everglades Plan Amid Cost Arguments

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The Everglades

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Legislative Session Coverage

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — A House panel unanimously approved a bill to update the restoration plan for the Everglades over the objections of environmental groups Thursday, setting the stage for what could be a complicated battle over the next phase of repairs for the “River of Grass.”

The measure (PCB SAC 13-01) would bring state law into line with the latest plan for Everglades restoration — a goal largely shared by farmers, environmentalists and government officials — but would also deal with how the $880 million plan would be paid for and the responsibility of agricultural permit holders.

In addition to the updated restoration plan, the bill would extend a $25-per-acre tax on farmers that was set to fall to $10 an acre in November 2017.

The tax would fall in 2025 under the bill approved by the State Affairs Committee Thursday. The measure would also change the law to essentially say that permit holders would not be considered to be contributing to the pollution in the Everglades if they follow their permits.

Environmentalists object to the additional provisions, saying they would allow farmers to avoid paying their fair share and would protect agricultural interests who followed permits that might be flawed. Gov. Rick Scott also signaled Thursday that he would favor the Senate’s version (SB 768) that is more limited.

“We’ve put a lot of effort into making sure we got the Everglades settlement done, with the federal government, Justice, Interior, EPA, and [the] Corps of Engineers,” Scott said.

Agricultural interests touted the extension of the tax as a sign that they were willing to do their part on restoration, and say that improvements in pollution levels show that the current system is helping.

“We’re always about contributing our fair share,” said Brian Hughes, a spokesman for sugar farmers, after the meeting. “The support for this bill … is part of a commitment to do our fair share and keep sugar farmers as part of the solution that’s clearly working.”

Critics of the bill, though, say that the state should wait and consider whether farmers should pay even more to help offset their impact on the Everglades.

“There’s no need to get into all these other issues this year,” said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation.

They saw about 60 percent of the pollution that enters water treatment areas come from agricultural interests.

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said about 60 percent of the pollution that enters water treatment areas come from the Everglades Agricultural Area, but farmers pay for about a quarter of the cost of restoration.

Draper’s group has challenged permits in the Everglades, arguing that they aren’t strong enough.

“The committee just voted to say don’t enforce the law on the 2 percent of the bad actors,” he said after the meeting.

But lawmakers said that’s the fault of the South Florida Water Management District for handing out flawed permits — not the farmers who are trying to follow them.

“Should we penalize private business for something the government’s not doing properly?” asked Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.

Rep. Matt Caldwell, the Lehigh Acres Republican who’s shepherding the bill through the process, argued that the problems in the Everglades lie with the state, which long pursued a policy of draining the Everglades and promoting development before deciding to save the area.

“But if there is a sin, it is not a sin that is exclusive to any one party,” he said. “It is a sin that every single one of the 19 million Floridians is going to have to be responsible for. And that’s what this plan lays out: a shared responsibility to restore the Everglades, to save a treasure that every single one of us values and wants to see in excellent condition for our children and our grandchildren.”

“The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.”

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