Lawmakers set to OK Everglades restoration plan

Published: Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 7:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 7:00 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — After initial skirmishes between environmental groups and sugar farmers over its wording, the Florida Legislature is moving ahead with a new plan to help pay for Everglades restoration.

The House gave tentative approval to the measure on Friday and an identical version is moving through the Senate.

Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, called the bill a peace treaty that has been accepted by the all sides in a dispute that has been fought over the last two decades.

"While it's not exactly what everyone wanted to get, it is something everyone can agree to," Caldwell said.

The legislation will keep intact an existing tax on farmers who work within a region of the northern Everglades - although it calls for the tax rate to decrease starting in 2027.

The money from the tax will be used for water quality restoration projects that are part of an $880 million plan that was negotiated between Gov. Rick Scott and the federal government.

Both the House bill (HB 7065) and the Senate measure (SB 768) call for spending $32 million a year for the next 10 years in an effort to reduce the amount of phosphorus that enters the Everglades.

"It extends the funding and it creates a reliable source for Everglades cleanup," said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida.

There have been legal battles over the famed River of Grass since the late '80s as well as fights over proposed constitutional amendments.

Voters back in 1996 defeated a proposal to place a penny per pound fee on raw sugar grown in the northern Everglades, but voters approved a measure that said that those who cause water pollution in the Everglades are primarily responsible for paying to clean it up.

Lawmakers passed a measure in 2003 that laid out a schedule for how long that farmers would have to pay taxes for associated restoration efforts. This year House Republicans unveiled a bill that would have changed that schedule but it also included a provision dealing with permits that drew the ire of environmental groups.

Sugar growers and environmental groups, however, worked out a compromise in the last week that has now made into the legislation.

Gov. Rick Scott did not agree with the initial House version, but has said he supports passing a measure that helps carry out the plan he negotiated. Scott is also seeking an additional $28 million in state funding for Everglades restoration this year.

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