Measures that would double Gov. Rick Scott's spending request for the Florida Forever conservation program and earmark money to improve the St. Johns River continued to move easily through the Senate on Thursday.
The Senate Environment and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee unanimously backed a proposal (SB 370) to designate $100 million a year for Florida Forever. Also, it approved a bill (SB 204) that would increase annual funding for springs projects from $50 million to $75 million and set aside $50 million a year for the restoration of the St. Johns River, its tributaries and the Keystone Heights lake region in North Florida.
Both proposals are sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which will hear the bills next.
“Our state is known for a lot of things, but the character of the state, the true character of the state is defined by its rivers, it's beaches, it's springs,” Bradley said. “We have an obligation to make sure future generations enjoy those wonderful gifts we get to enjoy.”
Neither proposal has a companion bill in the House. Scott requested spending $50 million on Florida Forever as part of his proposed 2018-2019 budget released last month.
Money for both Senate bills would come from the state's Land Acquisition Trust Fund. Voters in 2014 approved a constitutional amendment that requires a portion of real-estate “documentary stamp” tax revenues to go toward land and water conservation, with the money funneled through the trust fund.
That portion of the documentary-stamp tax is expected to generate $862.2 million next fiscal year, according to an August estimate by state economists.
Lawmakers in the past have carved up part of the annual funding so at least $200 million goes for Everglades projects, another $64 million goes for a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee and $5 million goes to the St. Johns River Water Management District for projects dedicated to the restoration of Lake Apopka.
But they have also used the money to cover agency expenses, which backers of the 2014 constitutional amendment contend is not allowed.
Bradley has said a review needs to be done to determine how much of the trust fund goes into agency overhead.
Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, said she was “proud” to be able to vote for Florida Forever bill, which would use the money “the way the voters had hoped to see it funded.”
The Florida Forever program was created in 1999 as a successor to an earlier version known as Preservation 2000.
Since 2001, Florida Forever has been used to purchase more than 718,000 acres for $2.9 billion. But the program has languished since the recession and as some key legislators have questioned the need for Florida to buy more land while struggling to manage the acres it already owns.
Lawmakers didn't direct any money to Florida Forever for the current fiscal year, which began July 1. Bradley's bills are filed for the 2018 legislative session, which starts next month.