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Audubon’s Eric Draper says Legislature ‘out of sync’ with voters

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Eric Draper of Audubon Florida told a television audience during a weekend broadcast that legislators are showing they are “out of sync” with voters who supported Amendment 1.

Seventy-five percent of voters in November approved the funding initiative, which provides an estimated $742 million for water and land conservation in the 2015-16 state budget.

Environmental groups say the House and Senate have ignored the intent of voters in their spending plans. The House approved perhaps $10 million for land acquisition although House leaders say it’s more. The Senate voted last week to boost spending on land buying from $2 million to $37 million.

Appearing on The Usual Suspects taped in Tallahassee, Draper praised the Florida Forever state land-buying program as a scientific process for determining land that should be bought. But he said legislators have “started substituting their own judgment” for that process in recent years.

“For example, there is a bill in the State Affairs Committee that would actually start giving the (state) land away, giving it to adjacent farmers,” Draper said. “Those are the sorts of things that seem very out of sync with where the voters are, with the voters who voted 75 percent (for Amendment 1).”

Draper was referring to HB 7135, filed by the House State Affairs Committee on March 26, which would allow the Cabinet to give state land to adjacent landowners who agree to conserve both properties. State Rep. Matt Caldwell, a Republican from North Fort Myers who is committee chairman, argued the state could end up conserving land without having to spend money.

Draper appeared on the show with Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, with show hosts Gary Yordon and Steven J. Vancore.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, a Republican from Merritt Island, has said the state needs to better manage the land it has before it buys more. But Draper said that was a “false claim” and an “excuse” not to buy land.

“The Legislature made the decision not to take care of the land,” Draper said. “Now they are using that as an excuse.”

Both Draper and Eikenberg promoted the idea of buying a portion of the 46,000 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. land south of Lake Okeechobee for a water storage and treatment reservoir. Gov. Rick Scott and Crisafulli have expressed reluctance at exercising a state option to buy the land before an October deadline and U.S. Sugar has expressed a reluctance to sell.

“We do that and we can also afford to expand our park system and protect our water supply,” Draper said.

“These (Amendment 1) dollars get us a long way toward that,” Eikenberg added.

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment, energy and growth management in Tallahassee.

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