Dean Proposes Putting Conservation Money In One Pot

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TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – Money that Florida voters want to use for land and water conservation efforts would go into a single trust fund under a new Senate proposal, but lawmakers are still weeks away from deciding how they will use the money.

Sen. Charlie Dean, an Inverness Republican who chairs the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee, filed a series of bills Friday that would designate a trust fund within the Department of Environmental Protection to handle money from the voter-approved “Florida Water and Land Legacy” constitutional amendment.

In addition to directing 33 percent of revenue generated from a real-estate tax into the trust fund, Dean’s proposal (SB 576, SB 578, SB 580, SB582, SB 584, and SB 586) would do away with a number of existing trust funds that benefit environmental programs.

But Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said in a letter to senators that the proposal won’t impact those programs.

“The legislation does not eliminate a single program currently receiving state funding, nor does it allocate funding to any new or existing program, project, or initiative,” Gardiner wrote, in bold lettering, to the senators.

The proposal also keeps lawmakers from tipping their hands about how they will decide during the upcoming legislative session to use the money.

Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper, a lobbyist on environmental issues, said Dean’s proposal appears “pretty straightforward” and doesn’t immediately give reason for concern.

“What’s encouraging to me is it gives us some sense of security that they are tracking close to the constitutional amendment,” Draper said.

Meanwhile, Aliki Moncrief, director of Florida’s Water & Land Legacy, said his group’s legal and legislative team is still analyzing the proposed legislation.

Since the constitutional amendment was approved in November, lawmakers have differed on how to define land-preservation and water-conservation projects, how the state should determine which of its “impaired” water bodies is most critical and how to approach the reduction of stormwater runoff and agricultural fertilizer use.

Environmental groups have presented Dean’s committee with a potential funding outline for next year that would send $150 million to the Everglades and South Florida estuaries and another $150 million to the Florida Forever program for land acquisition, springs and trails. Also, $50 million would go for springs, $90 million for land management, $20 million for beach management, and $25 million for rural family lands. The rest would cover debt service.

Gardiner also suggested last month that lawmakers could use the amendment to craft a 5-year plan for the long-term water and land conservation projects.

Lawmakers have so far also received more than 3,800 written public comments about how the money should be used.

The state’s Revenue Estimating Conference has estimated that the “Florida Water and Land Legacy” amendment, approved by 75 percent of voters in November, will generate $757.7 million in the next fiscal year.

Currently, about 20 percent of the annual real-estate documentary stamp revenue — $470.8 million in the 2014-2015 fiscal year — is divided up into the different trust funds supporting environmental programs, according to Gardiner’s letter.

Gardiner added that by putting all the land and water money into a single trust, Dean’s proposal will “prevent the commingling of these funds with the state’s general revenue.”

Last week, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam told House members that he thinks their Amendment 1 and water-policy priorities should focus on restoring the state’s natural springs and revising laws to reflect progress on Lake Okeechobee and the Northern Everglades. He also said lawmakers need to complete the implementation of the Central Florida Water Initiative, which ties together the St. Johns River Water Management District, the South Florida Water Management District and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Meanwhile, he said the state needs to review its land-management policies and set priorities on purchasing new lands that close gaps between wildlife corridors and create buffers around military bases.

The News Service of Florida’s Jim Turner contributed to this report.

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