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Bills Addressing Sea Level Rise Get Unanimous Bipartisan Support In Fla. Legislature

A man wades through flood water as he check out damage from Hurricane Matthew Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, in St. Augustine , Fla.
John Bazemore
/
Associated Press
A man wades through flood water as he check out damage from Hurricane Matthew Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, in St. Augustine , Fla.

Tens of millions of dollars a year would go to fight the effects of rising sea levels under bills passed by the Florida House and Senate this week.

The House and Senate both voted unanimously to approve SB 1954, which calls for spending up to $100 million a year on projects to address flooding and sea level rise and creating a grant program for local governments.

The legislation is now ready to go to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The “resiliency” issue has particularly been a priority for DeSantis and House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor). The bill calls for setting up a multi-year statewide flooding and sea level resilience plan that the Department of Environmental Protection would update annually.

After the vote, Sprowls said the measure is “one of the most robust and bold proposals in the entire United States of America to tackle sea level rise and coastal flooding of any state.”

Related: Plan Emerges In Fla. Legislature For Sea Level Rise, Wastewater Funding

More controversially, the House on Thursday voted 78-38 to approve a measure (SB 2512) that would divvy up more than $400 million in documentary-stamp tax dollars that in the past have been targeted toward what is known as the Sadowski Trust Fund for affordable housing.

Under the initial plan, funding would have been evenly distributed with $141.7 million being made available for affordable housing, sea level rise and sewage treatment. But many worried that would be siphoning too much money away from affordable housing, which is significantly lacking in many parts of the state.

Rep. Omari Hardy (D-West Palm Beach) said the bill would essentially cut in half future affordable housing money.

“This plan is built on a false choice,” Hardy said. “It recognizes that we have needs in the state of Florida. Sea level rise is an issue. Water quality is an issue. And it says that the only way that we can address these issues, the only way that we can fund these vital measures, which I support, is to fund it on the backs of working-class Floridians who are struggling to find a place that they can live in and a place that they can afford.”

Democrats in the Senate made similar arguments.

“When it comes to housing, there's very little stock in Palm Beach County that's available and affordable,” Sen. Bobby Powell (D-West Palm Beach) said. “I am all about resiliency and dealing with the climate change issues that we're starting to see in our environment, but I think that this is probably not the best way. There's probably other ways or other areas of funding that we could get those funds from.”

Rep. Joe Geller (D-Aventura) said the state could use $10 billion headed to Florida from the federal American Rescue Plan to fund resiliency efforts, sewage projects and other urgent water needs.

Related: ‘Resilient Florida’ Proposal Could Be Paid For By Federal Stimulus Money

The Senate approved an amendment Wednesday that shifted how funds from the Sadowski Trust Fund would be distributed under the bill, with $200 million going to affordable housing, $111.7 million to sea level rise and another $111.7 million to sewage treatment.

The Sadowski Trust Fund has been a regular target of lawmakers who divert affordable housing money to help pay for other programs. Sen. Ben Albritton (R-Wauchula) said SB 2512 would prohibit that practice in the future.

“The bill does not allow the sweeping of the trust funds that deal with affordable housing into general revenue,” Albritton said. “That’s something I know the chamber has been adamant about and crying out for for quite some time.”

Senators voted 25-14 to approve the bill on Wednesday.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said the resiliency legislation can make Florida “a national example of resilient communities.”

The bill that passed unanimously would, in part, create the “Resilient Florida Grant Program” in the Department of Environmental Protection, which would set criteria for local governments to apply for funding assistance to address sea-level rise issues.

Environmental groups have voiced support for the measure while expressing hope that lawmakers will eventually also address sources of fossil fuel emissions that are driving climate change and sea level rise.

Related: Local Efforts To Fight Climate Change Could Be Stymied By State Lawmakers

Also approved by the Senate Wednesday was SB 2514, which would create the Resilient Florida Trust Fund within the Department of Environmental Protection. Money deposited in this fund would be used as a funding source for the Resilient Florida Grant Program.

The DEP would also be able to use money in the fund for administrative and operational costs related to the Florida Hub for Applied Research and Innovation and coastal resilience initiatives.

The bill passed unanimously in the Senate. The House version has not yet been taken up in that chamber.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.