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Florida House: Use Conservation Money On Everglades

Amid criticism and even lawsuits over Florida's conversation efforts, the Republican-controlled state House on Tuesday announced an ambitious plan to pay for projects to help restore the state's Everglades.

The House proposal, called the "Legacy Florida" initiative, would mandate that the state set aside at least $200 million a year for Everglades restoration projects.

The list of projects would include those designed to lessen the level of discharges from Lake Okeechobee into nearby estuaries. In recent years, federal authorities have been criticized for discharging polluted water from the lake into Indian River Lagoon and the Caloosahatchee River.

"The Everglades is at the heart of our natural resources, and I believe consistent funding will help preserve and protect this national treasure," House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said in a statement.

Several environmental groups said that they were supportive, especially since the proposed legislation sponsored by Rep. Gayle Harrell would require that a minimum of $100 million be spent for the next decade for a list of comprehensive projects approved as part of a massive multi-billion dollar restoration plan.

"It's an important moment to have dedicated revenue so we can get these projects finished to ultimately protect the water supply for a third of the population," said Eric Eikenberg, chief executive officer of The Everglades Foundation.

Gov. Rick Scott, in a statement, signaled he was supportive.

The move by the House comes amid an ongoing tug-of-war over conservation money.

Voters in 2014 approved Amendment 1. It earmarks 33 percent - or about $18 billion to $20 billion over the next 20 years - from a real estate stamp tax to help the state purchase lands for conservation and water quality. It was the largest such measure ever approved in U.S. history.

Legislators in June passed a budget that used more than $750 million from real estate taxes on a wide array of programs including beach restoration and projects aimed at helping the state's beleaguered freshwater springs. But they also used the money to pay for salaries at several state agencies that oversee environmental programs and oversee existing state-owned lands and forests. They included only $17.4 million for Florida Forever, the state's main land conservation program.

That move by lawmakers triggered a lawsuit from environmental groups that contended legislators were defying voters.

The House proposal to dedicate at least $200 million on Everglades restoration would meet Amendment 1 requirements.

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