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Environmentalists: House budget plan ignores Amendment 1 intent

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A House subcommittee chairman’s proposal for environmental spending ignores the will of voters who supported Amendment 1, environmental groups said Tuesday.

“Most of Florida was left out of this budget,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida.

He was responding to the 2015-16 environmental spending proposal issued Tuesday by Rep. Ben Albritton, chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee. The proposal will be voted on by the full House Appropriations Committee.

Amendment 1, approved by 75% of voters statewide in November, provides $22 billion over 20 years for water and land conservation, including $757 million in fiscal year 2015-16. How that money is allocated next year is a major issue in the 2015 Legislative Session.

Environmentalists say voters approved Amendment 1 because they want more state conservation land buying, which has been slashed since 2009. Some industry groups, though, want money spent on water supply and local wastewater projects that environmentalists object to.

Albritton said he was recommending $205 million for the Florida Forever land-buying program including $100 million for water management districts for water resource development projects, $50 million for springs land acquisition, $25 million for payments to conservation landowners, and $20 million for Kissimmee River restoration, and $10 million for other purchases.

“The House has gone in a very different direction from what the voters intended when they voted yes on Amendment 1,” Will Abberger, chair of the Amendment 1 sponsor committee, said in a statement. “There is little to no funding for the purchase of new parks, wildlife habitat, or trails. That’s what people voted for.”

The House budget also appears to include funding for agency operations and other expenditures that should not be funded from Amendment 1, Abberger said.

Draper said it’s unclear how the $100 million for water management districts will be spent, but he expects it eventually to be earmarked for “lobbyist-driven water projects.”

“I think the (Albritton) recommendation ignores what the voters thought they were voting for, which was to put money into land acquisition for parks and wildlife habitat and for trails,” Draper said.

Although Gov. Rick Scott requested $100 million for the 10 programs or agencies that receive Florida Forever funding, Draper said the Albritton proposal circumvents proposed conservation purchases from counties across the state.

“It ignores the type of land that we need for growing Florida to protect wildlife that’s in the face of development,” Draper said. “The governor made an announcement that called for spending Florida Forever money for panther habitat. It doesn’t provide funds for that type of acquisition.”

The proposal would bond money for land acquisition along with $100 million for Everglades restoration, but apparently it doesn’t include purchase of U.S. Sugar Corp. land for an Everglades flow-way. Draper said he still has hope that a deal can be included in the budget.

He said the proposal diverts Amendment 1 funding into projects such as $15 million for “Lake Okeechobee Agricultural Projects,” which Draper said is for the Alico Inc. water storage project along the Caloosahatchee River. Draper said the benefits of the project are questionable.

“That’s the most visible example” of a lobbyist-driven project, he said. “There are probably other things like that being teed” in the budget.

Draper said spending also is unspecified for $83.6 million being shifted from general revenue. It’s also unclear how $178.7 million shifted from other trust funds are being spent.

While House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner have stressed transparency for Amendment 1 spending, but Draper said it’s difficult to see in Albritton’s proposal where money specifically would be spent.

“In many cases,” Draper said, “it’s allocated to agencies and there will be language at the end of the process that will reveal how the money actually is being used, in terms of which projects are funded.”

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

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