For environmentalists, the upcoming legislative session is a chance to set things right.
At the annual meeting of the Everglades Coalition this week in Coral Gables, the groups vowed not to let Florida legislators again botch efforts to implement a constitutional amendment voters overwhelmingly backed in 2014. It sets aside a third of taxes from real estate deals to buy, restore and manage lands to protect water supplies and wildlife. If all goes as planned, the session should end with 25 percent of the money, or at least $200 million, spent on Everglades projects.
“The challenge has always been, ‘Show me the money.’ But voters have stood up and said now we’re going to put money aside for all our natural resources,” Everglades Foundation Executive Director Eric Eikenberg told a crowded ballroom at the Biltmore Hotel in an opening session Friday to the three-day event.
For years, the multibillion-dollar effort to restore the Everglades has stalled, bogged down in bureaucracy and fights over funding. Just this week, officials celebrated the groundbreaking on a Miami-Dade project along the C-111 canal authorized more than a decade ago. Congress has still not funded an attempt to speed up work in the central Everglades to get water moving into ailing Florida Bay, which suffered a massive seagrass die-off last summer and fall.
Voters responded to that frustration by embracing the constitutional measure. About 75 percent backed it. But when it came time to spending the money last year, legislators instead used about two-thirds of the money on other expenses including buying cars and paying off other debts.
What was done with Amendment 1 wasn’t just a failure to implement it. It was a blatant failure.
Miami Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez
“What was done with Amendment 1 wasn’t just a failure to implement it. It was a blatant failure,” said Miami Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, the only Democrat on the Republican-sponsored bill which proposes setting aside $100 million annually to focus on central Everglades projects in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
The biggest hurdle, Rodriguez said, was convincing the Republican-controlled Legislature to agree to buy land.
“We really have to focus on that gut level ideological resistance,” he said. “It’s there. It’s palpable.”
Legislators are also under threat of legal action. After they failed to spend money, four groups including the Florida Wildlife Federation, St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida and the Sierra Club sued, demanding a judge declare the money illegally spent and return it to the trust fund.
$200 millionAmount of money bill proposes setting aside for Everglades projects
“It was an extraordinary abuse of power,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest, who is representing the groups.
If legislators fail to act, environmentalists are also betting on a surprising alley: Gov. Rick Scott.
Department of Environmental Protection deputy secretary Drew Bartlett told the group that Scott — who has been widely criticized for downsizing the agency, slashing its budget and most recently for a plant to open state parks to hunting, cattle grazing and timber harvesting — has vowed to set aside $5 billion in Amendment 1 money over 20 years that would help create the water storage to restore parched marshes.
“The big legacy is getting the dedicated funding stream,” Bartlett said.
With a set amount of money, environmentalists say restoration work should show more improvements to the marshes.
“If you looked at projects that were anticipated to be completed, you would be discouraged that we are not as far along as we’d hoped. That translates to real damage in the estuaries and seagrass die-offs in Florida Bay. The water isn’t getting where it’s supposed to go and that was really the promise of Everglades restoration,” said Dawn Shirreffs, an Everglades Foundation policy advisor. “Now we’re seeing big moving pieces.”