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Fl House, Senate Agree on Environmental Budget

Lawmakers agreed on hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental spending during a meeting Sunday night, but disappointed supporters of a land and water conservation amendment overwhelmingly approved by voters last fall.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News

The deal struck by Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, was announced after a 34-hour break in public budget negotiations between the two sides. The Legislature is working to resolve its budget differences by the scheduled Saturday end of a special session --- 10 days before Florida has to have a spending plan in place to avoid a government shutdown.

In all, the deal sets aside $81.8 million for Everglades restoration, $55 million to buy land and $47.5 million in funding for restoration of the state's natural springs. The Senate helped to constrain those numbers by pushing back on House attempts to bond some of the money, which would have allowed the state to spend roughly $10 for every dollar used for bonding.

"Without bonding, we weren't really able to do anything too robust in any particular area," Lee told reporters after the meeting.

The largest share of the land-buying money, $20 million, will go toward improvements to the Kissimmee River, while another $17.4 million will go to the state's Florida Forever land acquisition program. The state will also spend $15 million on protection easements and agreements on private land.

In a new item that emerged Sunday evening, lawmakers also agreed to use $2 million for a project on Howell Creek in Central Florida. That watershed is in the district of Senate Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.

"We have a lot of fine leaders along the I-4 corridor in Florida right now," Lee noted wryly.

The agreement to spend $55 million on land buys came months after 75 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment devoting a specific share of real-estate taxes to water and land projects. The amendment freed up roughly a quarter of a billion dollars for that purpose, but lawmakers have taken an expansive view of what falls under Amendment 1.

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said Sunday night that lawmakers were "out of touch" with voters who approved the amendment.

"This is the do-nothing legislature for the environment," he said.

Draper said lawmakers should have spent $100 million to $150 million on land buys alone to comply with the amendment. He didn't rule out the possibility of a lawsuit arguing that lawmakers weren't following the Constitution.

"I think there are reasons to think that that's in the realm of the possible," Draper said. He noted that there are "probably 4 million angry Floridians right now."

Lee wouldn't predict what might happen if the Legislature was sued.

"I'm not a lawyer, 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," Lee said.

The only major aspect of the budget yet to be agreed on is the spending plan for public education. That portion of the budget has been tied up in related policy disputes, but Lee said the House and Senate are close to resolution.

"I think we're there in terms of trying to understand the framework of how to bring that in for a landing, but it has taken awhile," he said.

Budget negotiators hope to complete their work by Tuesday, which would clear the way for the required 72-hour "cooling off" period to begin early enough for a Friday vote.

News Service of Florida reporter Jim Turner contributed to this report.