Senate adds $35 mil for land acquisition before passing budget

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The Senate on Wednesday passed an $80.4 billion budget after adding $35 million for land acquisition to send a message to supporters of Amendment 1.

In November, 75 percent of voters approved the funding initiative, which is now estimated to provide nearly $742 million for water and land conservation programs.

The proposed budget had included $2 million for the Florida Forever land-buying program plus $20 million for Kissimmee River restoration. Senators said they were flooded with calls from residents seeking more for land acquisition.

State Sen. Thad Altman, a Republican from Melbourne, had proposed issuing bonds to provide $300 million for Florida Forever. But he supported the alternative proposal by state Sen. Rob Bradley, a Republican from Fleming Island, to provide $35 million.

“I do think our budget falls short of that intent of the constitutional amendment,” Altman said. “But I do believe this amendment does move us in a very positive direction. I think it merits support.”

While the Senate voted 35-0 to support the budget, Democrats joined Altman in saying they hoped to find more money for land acquisition.

“This is a paltry sum compared to what the people said we should be spending,” said state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, the Senate Democratic leader from Tampa. “But it is a beginning.”

State Sen. Alan Hays, the Senate’s chief budget writer for environmental spending, again reminded senators that 27 percent of Florida, or 9.4 million acres, is in conservation ownership. That includes state, local and federal properties, including Everglades National Park and military bases.

He also disputed statements that 75 percent of Floridians supported the amendment. Instead, the Republican from Umatilla said only 75 percent of those who voted in November supported Amendment 1.

But he also said he hoped more money could be found for land acquisition during the budget conference committee process.

“I’m hoping we’ll have more,” Hays said, “and if we have more we’ll be able to do more.”

The House budget provides $20 million in revenue to issue $205 million in bonds for what House leaders are calling Florida Forever but they are unable to say how much is going toward land acquisition.

Almost the money goes toward water resource development projects and another $50 million goes toward springs restoration.

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