Environmentalists, farmers strike deal on Everglades

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The fight over the Everglades in the 2013 legislative session ended up being relatively short-lived, as the agricultural industry, environmentalists and lawmakers struck a deal to move ahead with the latest version of the plan to restore the “River of Grass,” reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

The deal, which unanimously passed a key Senate committee Thursday and is poised to pass the House on Friday, defuses what could have turned into a contentious battle over who pays for the $880 million project and how much responsibility agricultural permit holders bear. 

“Clearly this is one of the defining moments for our state and our nation, to have the Everglades restored,” said Sen. Wilton Simpson, who sponsored the measure. “This is one step in that process.”

Under the new plan, a $25-per-acre tax on farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area, near the northern edge of the marsh, would be extended to 2026 instead of expiring in 2017. The House bill (HB 7065) would have extended the tax to 2024.

And the compromise would phase the tax out more gradually; it wouldn’t fall to $10 an acre until 2036, 11 years later than under the House bill. The law would also clearly connect the revenue from the tax to restoring the Everglades.

“Everything about this amendment is good,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida. “Everything about the underlying bill is good.”

“This bill is exactly what is needed to move the restoration plan to this final phase,” said Brian Hughes, a spokesman for the sugar farmers who dominate Everglades agriculture.

The new version also drops House language that would have essentially said permit holders would not be considered to be contributing to the pollution in the Everglades if they followed their permits; environmentalists contend that those permits are often too weak.

For several, the agreement was a surprise.

“Senator Simpson, you are nothing short of a miracle worker,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg. “I would have never thought that I would have lived long enough to see all these disparate groups stand up in a meeting and all agree to one set of law here.”

Hours later, the House changed its bill — the one that had most concerned environmentalists — to follow the agreement.

“While it’s not exactly everything everyone wanted to get, it is something everyone can agree to,” said Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres.

Draper said legislative leaders in both chambers had pushed the two sides to work together. But the agreement didn’t come together until the bill was scheduled for a vote on the House floor, which is expected to come Friday.

He also said that environmentalists and the agricultural industry also plan to work together in the future.

“The fact is, at this point, our hope and I think that the industry’s hope is that we find a way to work together for the future to persuade both the Legislature and Congress to fund the broader Everglades restoration plan,” Draper said.

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.