State Politics

Florida House, Senate agree to Amendment 1, environmental funding

Entering the final week of the special session, House and Senate budget leaders on Sunday found agreement on how to spend more than $700 million set aside by voters for land acquisition and conservation.

It's a result environmentalists are calling "disappointing."

$55 million will go to buying new land, including in the state's existing Florida Forever and rural and family land programs.

Another $47.5 million will go to springs restoration and $81.8 million will be used for Everglades restoration.

That doesn't all come out of the money set aside by Amendment 1, which passed last November with the support of 75 percent of voters.

But much of the Amendment 1 dollars will go into administering programs that were previously funded with other sources. Senate Budget Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, says those are critical to the state's environmental and conservation efforts.

"We do have a backlog of existing projects and programs that we're trying to work through the system," Lee said. "I've tried to encourage people in the absense of bonding to kind of take a two-year view at this. We'll be back here very shortly and perhaps we can figure out a way to leverage the Amendment 1 Land Acquisition Trust Fund money a little better in the coming year."

Environmentalists have argued that the voters intended for more money to go toward buying new land. But after Senate leadership took a hard stance against financing land buys with bonds, that idea was pushed off the table for budget negotiations.

Bonding or no bonding, Florida Audubon Society executive director Eric Draper said the Legislature dropped an opportunity by not putting more money in to new environmental projects.

"This is a legislature that has underperformed for the environment," he said. "Nobody's going to give them a gold star for continuing to pay the salary of the secretary in the administration office."

Many, including House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, have previously suggested that litigation could be coming if the full $700 million-plus isn't spent directly on land acquisition and conservation.

Draper said a lawsuit would be premature until it's clear exactly how money is spent. One of the areas he's watching is money set aside for "land management," which he said could include things like building parking lots at existing state-owned parks and conservation lands. More than $10 million in new spending from the Amendment 1 money is being set aside for those purposes.

But even Lee expects legal action to come.

"I'm not a lawyer," Lee said. "But in this world we live in today, I am confident of one thing and one thing only, and that is that there will be litigation."