Sen. Rob Bradley’s, R-Orange Park, proposal to increase funding for the St. Johns River, springs and the Keystone Heights Lake Region cleared its first legislative hurdle Monday, gaining unanimous approval from the Senate’s Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee. Bradley is the chairman.
The measure would increase annual funding for springs restoration from at least $50 million to $75 million and also proposes at least $50 million a year for the St. Johns River, its tributaries or the Keystone Heights Lake Region.
Although funding for these kinds of programs was increased during last year’s legislative session, Bradley’s bill failed. The Northeast Florida senator told his colleagues his measure was most about regional fairness in funding.
“I think when we take on this responsibility of expending these Amendment 1 dollars that it’s important that we allocate in a manner that reflects all parts of the state,” he said. “It was important, the work that we’ve done on the Everglades — incredibly important, and with Lake Okeechobee and the discharges — incredibly important work that we’ve done … I think included on this list needs to be this area of the state and this important resource as well.”
Last year the Legislature allocated a little more than $13 million, only $5 million of which would be recurring, to St. Johns River projects. Meanwhile, millions more was spent on projects in Central and South Florida.
Amendment 1 mandates 33 percent of documentary tax revenue be set aside for conservation over the next 20 years. Since its passage in 2014, lawmakers from around the state have engaged in yearly in political battles over which region gets funding.
The documentary tax is a fee paid on documents such as claim deeds and certificates of title, documents that show ownership of real property.
Bradley’s bill wasn’t the only conservation budget proposal to unanimously pass the committee Monday. Another measure, sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, would allocate at least $50 million annually for beach renourishment and repair, although it doesn’t specify which beaches would receive funding.
“Yes, with a little bit of elementary math, you can add up all the different percentages and dollar figures that we are proposing be used for the Land Acquisition Trust Fund and you probably come up with more dollars than there is in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund,” Latvala said. “At some point in time, probably in the Appropriations Committee, we’ll have to put all those bills that we have this year and the bills that we passed over the last couple of cycles on one sheet and figure out how we divide it up. A lot of good ideas just X amount of dollars.”
Revenue from Amendment 1 is expected to hit more than $1 billion at the tail end of its two decade-long run. The tax is expected to bring the trust fund $862.2 million next fiscal year, according to an August estimate by state economists. reports the News Service of Florida.
Lawmakers have been criticized for spending the tax revenue on water and sewage projects, some restoration efforts and state salaries. Environmental advocates, like the St. Johns Riverkeeper, are currently suing the state for not spending the bulk of the dollars on acquiring new conservation land, but that suit isn’t scheduled to be heard by a judge until July 2018.
Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman said her organization is generally supportive of Bradley’s measure and of any measure restoring Florida’s fragile ecosystem, but that not every project is created equal. Rinaman said she hopes extra scrutiny will be paid to the projects Bradley’s bill eventually pays for.
Bradley’s bill leaves specific spending decisions to the St. Johns Water Management District.