As Florida’s 2014 legislative session ended, the much-touted springs bill dried up as many predicted. The bipartisan bill pushed by several Senate co-sponsors couldn’t navigate through the man-made dam in the Florida House.
This wasn’t the only disappointment for those committed to protecting Florida’s natural resources. With a record high state budget of $77 billion, hopes ran high among those concerned about springs protection, Everglades restoration and water resources that this might be the session that we return to the environmental funding of the past.
Then, Florida Forever was fully funded at $300 million and Water Protection and Sustainability received the full $100 million originally intended.
This year, not even close.
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While the Florida Legislature did fund some water projects that individual legislators requested, it failed to fund environmental programs that look at whole ecosystems and ongoing projects. One notable exception was considerable funding granted for the Indian River Lagoon restoration.
Another cause for celebration actually came from the federal government. In early June, President Obama signed a big water-projects bill that provides funding for some Everglades restoration projects.
The Water Resources Reform and Development Act will allow state and federal partners to start new restoration projects in the River of Grass after seven years of stagnation. It’s hard to believe the best environmental news for Florida came from Washington, D.C., the bastion of divisiveness, obstruction and inaction.
Why can’t Florida provide responsible environmental policy and consistent funding?
The fundamentals are in place. Our state revenues are increasing and our budget reached a record high. And documentary stamp revenue, the customary funding source for environmental and infrastructure funding, is also on the rise after years of a slowdown in the housing market.
And over the years good people fought hard and accomplished great things.
Florida Forever, the highly popular and successful voluntary land acquisition program, is still enshrined in state law, providing a strong framework for conservation efforts. The Water Sustainability and Protection Act set forth a solid blueprint to ensure an adequate and safe supply of water. It’s still the law of the land and focuses on both water quality and quantity. It created a matching fund program with local governments to address their water supply needs.
It was my hope the proposed springs legislation would join Florida Forever and the Water Sustainability Act in Florida’s statutes and that all three would receive the dedicated and continuous funding that’s necessary to restore and maintain our natural resources and quality of life.
Why didn’t that happen?
The springs bill failed, in part, because the incoming House speaker wants it done on his watch. Of course there are many user groups, some with deep pockets, that want a say. Accommodating them runs the risk that good springs protection legislation gets diluted.
The problem with water, land, springs and Everglades policy is that Florida has no long-term stability and continuity despite the hard-fought battles to put a funding source and meaningful legislation in place.
And, one might argue, no backbone to say No to the special interests that take a parochial view of our environmental policies.
As leadership in the House and Senate changes, the commitment to water resource funding ebbs and flows. When the economy slows, the environmental programs are the first to take a hit. When legislators are term-limited and leave office, new legislators need to be educated on the environment and, frankly, not too many are interested.
But they should be. Water is vital to our very survival — and our economy.
While the governor and legislators acknowledge the importance of an adequate water supply, their words are cheap. While they sing the praises of springs protection, their inaction hits a sour note.
We’re refighting the same battles. We’re not making the forward progress that we once did. Empty words and promises aren’t going to restore the Everglades, protect our springs, increase our water supply, or clean up our lakes, rivers and estuaries.
It’s time for a sincere commitment to our resources backed by dedicated, sustainable and continuous funding. Frustrated Floridians are looking for an environmental hero.
Clearly, it’s not going to come from our current leaders.
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.