Lawmakers Look For More Money For Beach Projects

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — Beach restoration is the latest target for a slice of cash set aside by voters for environmental preservation.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island, announced Friday they want to match Gov. Rick Scott’s request to allocate $50 million a year for beach restoration. The money would come from the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund, which handles money from a 2014 constitutional amendment aimed at boosting land and water conservation.

The proposal (SB 1590 and HB 1213) would require the Department of Environmental Protection to develop a new three-year plan for beach repairs. It also would refocus attention on sand management at inlets and seek a revision in a ranking system so the most serious erosion problems are prioritized.

“Unfortunately, over half of Florida’s sandy beaches are eroding, and only half of these miles of eroded beaches are part of a beach project,” Latvala, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a prepared statement. “We can point fingers or offer excuses, but the simple answer is not enough funding, and this bill addresses that.”

In recent years, the Legislature has provided $30 million a year to fight beach erosion. Scott in January requested $50 million for beach restoration as part of his proposed $83.5 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Scott’s proposal was in addition to $15.8 million he released last year through an emergency order and another $61 million that is in his proposed budget to help communities impacted by hurricanes Hermine and Matthew.

Lawmakers will consider Scott’s budget proposals during the annual legislative session that starts Tuesday.

Backers of the 2014 constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 1, said that while they support efforts to safeguard water and land resources, they would like to see $150 million a year go to land conservation.

“These bills reflect a piecemeal approach to environmental spending,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida. “Amendment 1 was an invitation to legislators to review and prioritize land and water conservation, Everglades restoration and coastal protection. But the big question of environmental infrastructure spending suffers from short-term thinking.”

The trust fund dollars are raised through real-estate documentary-stamp taxes, known as “doc stamps.” The voter-approved constitutional amendment directs 33 percent of the “doc stamp” tax revenue into the trust fund for 20 years.

Some key lawmakers have objected to using the money for land acquisition, contending the state already has more land in its inventory that it can manage. Meanwhile, they started to slice parts of the trust fund into long-term commitments last year.

A law titled “Legacy Florida” dedicates up to $200 million a year toward Everglades and Lake Okeechobee projects out of the money put into the trust fund annually. The law also directs $50 million a year for the state’s natural springs and $5 million each year for Lake Apopka.

For the 2017 session that begins Tuesday, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, have filed bills (SB 234 and HB 847) seeking $35 million annually from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund for the St. Johns River, its tributaries or the Keystone Heights lake region in North Florida. Also, Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, and Rep. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, have filed proposals (SB 982 and HB 1033) that would direct $30 million to restoration of the Indian River Lagoon system.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has also included the potential of increasing Legacy Florida funding in his pursuit of $2.4 billion in state and federal money to acquire 60,000 acres of farmland south of Lake Okeechobee for a reservoir. The reservoir is intended to redirect the flow of polluted freshwater that is now going from the lake into estuaries to the east and west.

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

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