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Water, fracking bills die as Senate meets without House

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A House bill establishing comprehensive water policy was amended and passed by the Senate on Wednesday but was dead because the House had adjourned on Tuesday.

And House bills dealing with hydraulic fracturing were not voted on in the Senate because their Senate sponsor said they lacked the two-thirds vote needed.

The 2015 legislative session continued in an unusual atmosphere on Wednesday with the Senate taking up bills after the House adjourned amid a budget impasse over healthcare spending. A special session is expected before July 1 to pass a 2015-16 state budget.

When debate on a water bill amendment led to an extended pause while Senate President Andy Gardiner was distracted, he responded “Sorry guys, I was calling the House — nobody answered.” There was loud laughter and applause from senators.

With the House being gone, the Senate could only take up bills that passed the House. Any amendments would doom those bills without the House in session to concur.

So when state Sen. Charlie Dean amended his SB 918 water language onto HB 7003, it effectively ended the possibility of comprehensive water policy passing during the session.

Gardiner pointed out that the Senate bill differed from the House bill by establishing a statewide water resources council that he said would provide oversight for spending under Amendment 1, the ballot measure that will provide an estimated $740 million next year for water and land conservation.

“The oversight commission that you put in here is a very important piece of this puzzle,” Gardiner said. “Unfortunately our friends on the other side of the aisle or across the hall aren’t even around to have the debate or the discussion.

“So we will send them this water bill. It’s one we can be extremely proud of.”

The bill passed 39-1 with state Sen. Joe Negron, a Republican from Stuart, being the only vote in opposition.

He spoke in support of an amendment by state Sen. Darren Soto, a Republican from Kissimmee, that would have directed the South Florida Water Management District to identify water storage areas south of Lake Okeechobee.

That amendment, later withdrawn by Soto, would have provided an alternative approach if the state fails to exercise an option by October to buy 46,800 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. land for water storage.

The Senate also temporarily postponed HB 1205, which would have established a moratorium on oil and gas hydraulic fracturing for at least a year while an environmental study and rule-making are conducted.

Hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, involves the use of sand, water and chemicals to extract oil and gas from rock. Opponents say the process threatens groundwater and drinking water, which the industry and bill supporters deny.

The Senate took up HB 1205 on Tuesday and was considering amendments only three minutes after the House went home. That led the bill to be temporarily postponed.

State Sen. Garrett Richter, a Republican from Naples and bill sponsor, said Wednesday he welcomed the opportunity to explain the bill again with fewer distractions. But he said he lacked the two-thirds vote he needed to waive rules and vote to send the bill to the governor.

“I hope we can take up this issue next session,” Richter said. “We’re going to waste the next eight months on (not doing) this study and keep the (regulatory) environment the way it is.”

HB 1209, a companion bill exempting from public records laws proprietary information submitted by companies, failed to pass the House before it adjourned on Tuesday.

One bill that the Senate still could pass on Wednesday is HB 7109, a Public Service Commission bill that allows Duke Energy Florida to issue bonds to cover $1.4 billion in operating costs incurred before the shutdown of the Crystal River nuclear plant. Bill sponsors say the deal would save Duke customers $600 million.

The House on Tuesday refused to concur with Senate amendments. So the Senate would have to strip off its amendments on Wednesday to send the bill to the governor.

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

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