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Senate Increases Land-Buying Money, Slightly

Steve Newborn

The Senate added $35 million Wednesday to its plan for buying conservation land, as backers of November's land and water constitutional amendment continue to push for a higher funding level proposed by the governor.

The additional Senate money, amended into the chamber's $80.4 billion budget proposal for the next fiscal year, boosts funding to at least $37 million for land buying under the voter-approved initiative known as Amendment 1.

Amendment 1 requires $741.8 million be set aside for land and water projects during the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who sponsored the amendment, said the increase is a response to complaints about a lack of land-buying money in both the House and Senate budget proposals.

"We need to be listening to the voters who spoke in November and who have talked to us individually since then," Bradley said. "Land acquisition is a part of what we need to be doing to live up to our obligations of Amendment 1, whether that is a technical legal obligation or an actual legal obligation."

Bradley estimates the funding raises the Senate's land purchasing proposal to $57 million by including money already set aside to protect the state's natural springs and to restore the Kissimmee River.

Amendment 1, which was supported by 75 percent of voters, requires 33 percent of the proceeds from a real-estate tax to go for land and water maintenance and acquisition.

The funding level is currently projected to generate more than $200 million above what lawmakers allocated for such uses in the current year.

Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper, a lobbyist on environmental issues, said the target for Amendment 1 backers is the $300 million that Gov. Rick Scott proposed to be evenly split among land acquisitions and land management on a recurring basis.

"What we need to do is say, 'Thanks very much Sen. Bradley,' and that we think the Senate can do more and the House can do more," Draper said. "This gets us closer to the governor's number."

Several lawmakers and a business lobbying organization have argued that the state already possesses enough land. The Senate previously set aside $2 million for land acquisition as part of the Florida Forever program within the Amendment 1 package.

The Senate has opposed issuing bonds for the projects. Meanwhile, the House continues to hold at $10 million to bond land acquisition.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said the House is open to talking with the Senate. He also noted the bonding will generate at least $100 million, of which half is required to go to land acquisition.

"It's an approach we see as viable," Crisafulli said Wednesday after the House session. "As a business person, when money is cheap you look typically to go and look to borrow, and do it in a way that is responsible."

Crisafulli added that different parts of the House's Amendment 1 funding package, such as $25 million for the Rural and Family Lands program, $105 million for land management, $50 million for natural springs and $20 million for the Kissimmee River restoration could also go toward land buying.

House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said the fear remains that the Amendment 1 money will simply be used to supplant spending for existing environmental programs.

"Clearly, no one is where they need to be in my estimation," Pafford said.

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