Legislative Wrap Up: How Did Southwest Florida’s environment fare?
By Rob Moher | Conservancy of Southwest Florida President and CEO
Dear Conservancy Supporters,
The 2017 legislative session proved to be full of ups and downs for Southwest Florida’s water, land and wildlife. I am reaching out to you to share with you a brief overview of the issues the Conservancy of Southwest Florida was tracking and advocating for, on behalf of you, our supporters.
Let’s start with the good news
The Governor signed Senate Bill 10 into law, meaning that Florida will begin to plan for and build a much needed $1.5 billion water storage and treatment reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) south of Lake Okeechobee.
Devastating freshwater discharges from the Lake have been doing harm to estuaries on both coasts of South Florida resulting in national headline grabbing titles such as “Guacamole-like algae chokes Florida’s waterways”. This is not great advertising for Florida’s tourism-centered economy.
Passage of SB 10 is also a win for commonsense and science-based conservation policy rising above the noise of many special interests. The Conservancy applauds the leadership of Senate President Joe Negron, along with SB 10 sponsors Senators Robert Bradley and Anitere Flores and House companion bill sponsors Representatives Thad Altman, and Heather Fitzenhagen. We also thank Governor Rick Scott who remained open to a compromise on building the reservoir.
Now, the not-so-good news
Florida’s legislature failed miserably in respecting the intention and desire of voters to accelerate land and water conservation initiatives outside of Everglades Restoration. In 2014, more than 75 percent of voters approved Amendment 1 which dedicates 33 percent of the documentary stamp tax (estimated to be about $10 billion over 20 years) for land and water protection efforts. This comes through funding of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. Florida historically invested about $300 million a year in land buying programs, easement purchases and other progressive policies to protect Florida from the rapid pace of development which is resulting in massive conversion of natural and agricultural lands.
The abandonment of these programs was the reason for the voters’ passage of Amendment 1. This year, the Legislature invested zero dollars in Florida Forever. A paltry $10 million was set aside for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program and zero dollars for Florida Communities Trust (FCT) program. FCT funds have been used for highly successful partnership projects like the Gordon River Greenway in Collier County. Florida Forever, one of the leading programs of its kind in the country, has been used to purchase lands from willing sellers that have high ecological value. However, with no funding, many of these priority acquisitions will not advance, much to the chagrin of the vast majority of Floridians who care about our water, land and wildlife.
Finally, House leadership completely abdicated its responsibility in failing to allow House Bill 451, a bill that would have banned fracking and fracking-like activities statewide, to be heard in committee. House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues blocked the bill from being heard for its merits, despite the fact that over 90 Florida local governments have passed resolutions and ordinances supporting the ban of these risky and water-intensive oil well stimulation treatments. There was strong bipartisan support for the bills, with a quarter of House members and half of Senate members formally sponsoring the bill.
All in all, Southwest Florida’s interests for sound environmental policy were modestly served this Session. We encourage all of our region’s residents to reinforce to our elected officials the importance of protecting water resources, banning oil well stimulation treatments, and honoring voter intent through restoration of at least 25 percent of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund (Amendment 1), and robust funding for other land conservation programs, such as Rural and Family Lands Protection Program easements. These, along with smart local zoning, are the best mechanisms to protect the natural systems that provide us with so many benefits in the face of significant growth.
Thank you for continuing to support the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. We are able to continue this work because of you.
President and CEO
Conservancy of Southwest Florida
Learn more about the Conservancy’s advocacy efforts at www.conservancy.org/policy.