A measure that would double the amount Gov. Rick Scott wants to spend on the state's most-prominent land preservation program has been easily approved during its first Senate committee.
Bill sponsor Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican elevated earlier in the day on Monday to chair the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, said the state isn't doing enough for land conservation.
The Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee voted unanimously to support Bradley's bill (SB 370) that would designate $100 million a year for the Florida Forever program.
The bill comes three years after voters passed a constitutional amendment that called for a portion of real-estate tax dollars to be placed in a trust fund and spent on land and water conservation.
“I think we don't spend enough of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund dollars on land acquisition,” Bradley told reporters after Monday's meeting. “The voters sent a clear message in 2014 … and we need to do better.”
Florida Conservation Voters Executive Director Aliki Moncrief said Bradley's proposal is a “significant step” to “reinvigorate” Florida Forever.
“Our economy is fueled in large part by tourism,” Moncrief said. “Every year, more than 100 million people visit our state, and nearly all of them spend at least some of their time enjoying our natural treasures.”
The Florida Forever program was created in 1999 as a successor to an earlier version known as Preservation 2000.
Since 2001, Florida Forever has been used to purchase more than 718,000 acres for $2.9 billion. But the program has languished since the recession and as some key legislators have questioned the need for Florida to buy more land while struggling to manage the acres it already owns.
Lawmakers didn't direct any money to Florida Forever for the current fiscal year, which began July 1. Bradley's proposal is filed for the 2018 legislative session, which starts in January.
Money for Bradley's proposal would come through the 2014 constitutional amendment, which directed lawmakers to use one-third of the revenue generated by a real-estate tax for conservation measures.
The “documentary-stamp” tax is expected to generate $862.2 million in the next fiscal year, according to an August estimate by state economists.
Bradley said a review needs to be done to determine how much of the trust fund goes into agency overhead, which has been a contentious point.
Environmental groups are battling the state in court about whether some of the trust-fund money has been improperly diverted from conservation purposes to agency staffing and operational expenses.
David Cullen, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club of Florida, called Bradley's Florida Forever proposal “potentially a very good start.” But Cullen added the state needs to show a long-range commitment by planning for the acquisition of lands to sustain the state.
A couple of senators asked if Bradley's bill and others introduced this year will exceed the revenue available or if he could ensure the money is adequately dispersed for projects across the state.
“There will, I think it's fair to say, be a strong commitment from the Senate towards environmental efforts this year,” Bradley said. “What it ultimately looks like, it remains to be seen.”
The Senate committee previously advanced a bill (SB 174) by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, that would annually earmark $50 million for beach-nourishment and inlet-management projects and a separate measure by Bradley (SB 204) that would provide $75 million a year for natural springs.
Lawmakers in the past have carved up part of the annual funding so at least $200 million goes for Everglades projects, another $64 million for a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee and $5 million to the St. Johns River Water Management District for projects dedicated to the restoration of Lake Apopka.
Bradley on Monday replaced Latvala as chairman of the Appropriations Committee during an investigation into sexual-harassment allegations against Latvala.
Scott intends to include $50 million for Florida Forever in his recommended budget for next fiscal year, as part of $1.7 billion request for the state Department of Environmental Protection --- a $220 million increase from the current year.
Scott's overall proposal will seek increased funding for springs, beaches and parks, along with $355 million for Everglades restoration and $50 million to help the federal government speed repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.