Florida Politics

Water bill splits House and Senate, but for how long?

The House and Senate are drafting drastically different plans on how to spend Amendment 1 money that could only complicate efforts to come up with a comprehensive water policy.

Yet as far apart as the two chambers are in passing a policy that would govern the state’s water quality and quantity issues for the next generation, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said the Senate may offer an olive branch.

Last week, the House passed HB 7003, which included an overhaul of the regulation of 3.5 million acres north of Lake Okeechobee, comprising the northern watershed for the Everglades. The bill applies looser land use standards for agribusinesses, which raises concerns from environmental groups that the quality of the Everglades’ cleanup could be jeopardized.

The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, focuses more on protecting springs and creates an advisory council that would rank water projects, helping lawmakers decide how to spend Amendment 1 money. Unlike the House bill, it leaves the regulatory system north of Lake Okeechobee intact.

But on Wednesday, Simpson said ultimately the Senate bill will have to include a provision addressing Lake Okeechobee.

“The water bill that we put together will address Key West to Pensacola, so I think the entirety of the House bill and the Senate bill will, as always, cohesively fit into the other.”

Senate President Andy Gardiner made Simpson one of three senators, along with Dean and David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, responsible for drafting water policy this year, so he’s a crucial player in determining how the Senate will bridge a sizable gap with the House.

Dean’s bill offers broader protection zones than the House bill to inhibit development and agricultural activity. SB 918 was vetted for the second time in a workshop on Wednesday where representatives from various special interest groups shared their thoughts and concerns.

The Nature Conservancy and the Florida Wildlife Federation generally gave the bill high marks for establishing deadlines for water quality standards in springs that are currently polluted and creating a board that will rank water projects every year to help lawmakers decide which ones to fund with Amendment 1 money.

“Thanks so much for this thoughtful bill,” Janet Bowman, a lobbyist for the Nature Conservancy, told Dean on Wednesday. “(The ranking) is a great idea.”

But agricultural interests pushed Dean to expand the scope.

“Springs are an important challenge,” said Greg Munson, a land use attorney who represents an Associated Industries of Florida coalition of agribusinesses that includes U.S. Sugar. “We’d love to see this expanded to include the Everglades.”

How the state will spend Amendment 1 revenue is a sticking point.

Approved by 75 percent of the voters last year, Amendment 1 is expected to steer between $300 million and $500 million a year for projects intended to preserve environmentally sensitive land and protect and improve water quality. It’s a constitutionally guaranteed revenue source that taps documentary stamp taxes.

But the Senate plans to adjust the share of documentary stamp tax revenue. As required by the constitutional amendment, it would steer 33 percent of the doc stamp revenue to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. To do that, however, it reduces the share for other groups that depend on the money.

Florida Housing Coalition president Jamie Ross said the Senate bill reduces the share for affordable housing by cutting the pool of revenue it depends on by 33 percent. So instead of drawing 16 percent from 100 percent of the doc stamp revenue, it would only get 16 percent from 66 percent, which would reduce its possible funding by $112 million next year, Ross said.

Bob Burleson, president of the Florida Transportation Builders Association, said the Senate’s plan would drain state road construction projects by the same amount. The House bill doesn’t do that.

It’s early, but the chasm between the House and Senate on water is causing some to already peg it as a potential bargaining chip in whether the state expands Medicaid.

“The (Low Income Pool) dollars seem to be triggering a health care expansion debate, I think all of that plays into water, it plays into probably a lot of other subjects,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. “There’s going to be potentially a lot of give-and-take.”