For the next 20 years, Florida legislators will be required to dedicate at least $250 million annually to fund restoration of the state’s ailing Everglades ecosystem and polluted springs under a bill signed Thursday by Gov. Rick Scott.
The Legacy Florida Act builds on Amendment 1, which voters approved by a 75 percent margin in 2014 to earmark money from a documentary stamp tax on real estate transactions to be spent on protecting and repairing the state’s most fragile ecosystems.
The act requires the Legislature to dedicate up to $200 million a year for Everglades restoration, $50 million a year for Florida springs and $5 million a year for Lake Apopka. Scott signed it on the day environmentalists celebrate as “Everglades Day.”
The measure was proposed by incoming Senate President Joe Negron and Rep. Gayle Harrell, both Stuart Republicans, who represent the Indian River Lagoon region, an area of the state that is facing increasing ecological stress. The lagoon has seen a massive fish kill in the last two weeks because of brown tide, while areas of Everglades National Park have been left vulnerable after regulators were forced to release polluted water from Lake Okeechobee into fragile estuaries to alleviate flooding.
Amendment 1 was spearheaded by environmentalists after the governor and lawmakers repeatedly rejected their requests to fund land acquisition and water restoration projects needed to repair areas of the state damaged by agricultural runoff, environmental pollution and development.
Lawmakers are now obligated to devote one-third of the revenue from the documentary stamp tax on real estate transactions to the Land Acquisition Trust fund to pay for land and water conservation programs. Last year the fund collected $743.5 million. This year lawmakers benefited from an improving real estate market and more robust tax collections to have $902 million to dedicate for environmental programs.
With the Legacy Florida Act, a substantial portion of that money is guaranteed to be spent on the Everglades and springs, a move that has pleased environmental groups.
Scott commended the Legacy Florida Act, (HB 989/SB 1168), “for fulfilling the promise I made to create a dedicated source of funding to restore the Florida Everglades.”
Negron said that the act “is an historic achievement in Florida and will bring much needed relief to communities effected by water releases in Lake Okeechobee and St. Lucie.”
Eric Eikenberg, CEO of The Everglades Foundation, said the funding will help bring clean-up projects that are already underway to completion.
“The Everglades is an economic engine for this state and a sound investment. Restoration projects create jobs and protect the water supply for one in three Floridians,” he said.
And Eric Draper, Executive Director of Audubon Florida, noted that the dedicated funding is a “major step forward toward implementing plans to meet water quality goals and delivering freshwater flows.”
Mary Ellen Klas: meklas@MiamiHerald.com; follow her @MaryEllenKlas