Budget amendment for land-buying withdrawn but may be back, senator says

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A Senate budget amendment that would have provided $350 million for land-buying was withdrawn Wednesday but the senator who sponsored it said it could come back.

In November, 75 percent of voters approved a ballot initiative called Amendment 1 that provides an estimated $741 million in fiscal 2015-16 for water and land conservation.

The proposed Senate budget provides $2 million for the Florida Forever land-buying program and $20 million for land for Kissimmee River restoration, far short of the total of what some environmentalists say was intended by Amendment 1.

State Sen. Thad Altman, a Republican from Melbourne, proposed issuing $350 million in bonds for the Florida Forever land-buying program. But he withdrew his amendment after debate in the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

“I’d like for the members to have time to review it, see it,” Altman said. “This can come back up when we get the budget on the floor.”

State Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, the Senate Democratic leader, withdrew her amendment directing nearly $80 million to Florida Forever. She said later that she withdrew the amendment because it wouldn’t pass but it had served its purpose in prompting discussion of the issue.

Altman withdrew his amendment after state Sen. Alan Hays, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government, said he would look for more for land acquisition.

Last week, Hays, a Republican from Umatilla, pointed out that federal, state and local agencies now own 9.4 million acres, or about 27 percent of Florida.

“My question is, how much is enough?” Hays asked last week.

But on Wednesday, Hays said the $2 million for land-buying was a placeholder for when budget negotiations begin with the House.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from St. Petersburg, asked Hays for “comfort” that he would be seeking more money for land acquisition.

Hays said he would look for more but he also argued against borrowing, saying he agrees with the governor that bonding is a “strong ‘No.’”

“I’m not locked down on $2 million,” Hays said. “Does that give you the comfort you are looking for?”

“A little bit of it,” Latvala responded.

State Sen. Joe Negron, a Republican from Stuart, said the voters “spoke loud and clearly” on Amendment 1.

“The current budget with only $2 million for Florida Forever is in my view not responsive to the constitutional amendment,” Negron said. “I think Senator Altman is on the right track.”

Hays responded that Florida needs to focus on improving its land management, echoing House Speaker Steve Crisafulli.

“We don’t need to be known as the hoarding-land state,” Hays said. “We need to be known as good stewards of the resources that the people own.”

Altman said voters intended for land acquisition to be financed as was done for land-buying from 1990 until 2009, when funding was slashed. He said time is running out to buy lands for preservation rather than having to restore them later.

“If we don’t buy them, they will be gone forever,” he said. “And we’ll have more very, very expensive capital projects, retrofits, engineering solutions that may never be able to return it back. It will be more expensive and may never be able to save the state we love.”

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

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.