2014 Florida legislative preview

- Focus on the environment -

In spite of several leaders in Tallahassee saying the Legislature won’t adopt any big water policies this year, lawmakers will take up several bills that focus on the environment. There’s also a proposed conservation amendment to the constitution on the horizon that would feature some heavy and binding water and land funding.

Amendment  No. 1, Water and Land Conservation, sponsored by Florida’s Water and Land Legacy Inc., aims to ensure money is set aside over the next 20 years to acquire and restore Florida conservation and recreation lands.

The proposed constitutional amendment is summarized on the Florida’s Water and Land Legacy’s website.

“Funds the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands including wetlands and forests; fish and wildlife habitat; lands protecting water resources and drinking water sources, including the Everglades, and the water quality of rivers, lakes, and streams; beaches and shores; outdoor recreational lands; working farms and ranches; and historic or geologic sites, by dedicating 33 percent of net revenues from the existing excise tax on documents for 20 years.”

The group says this funding source has been used for years for conservation purposes, but funds have recently been diverted. It says this will simply offer constitutional protection to conservation’s share of the tax.

On the surface, it sounds good. The problem is a matter of inflexibility in case of floods, hurricanes or other emergencies. No money from the conservation fund would be allowed to be used for emergencies. It is all earmarked for conservation projects. Estimates are that this effort would tie up about $19 billion of the state’s budget for the next 20 years to protect natural areas.

“When I read the wording of the proposed amendment, it is mainly to acquire more land for the state, which means there will be less land to farm or develop,” said Butch Calhoun, FFVA’s director of governmental relations.

Springs bill pending, others in the works

One of the bills that would address environmental concerns is an anticipated – but not yet filed – springs protection act. Sen. David Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs) is expected to file the Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act. The latest proposed draft of the bill would create and fund new environmental regulatory programs to protect and restore Florida’s springs, water quality and indigenous species at a cost of nearly $380 million per year.

Concurrently, Gov. Rick Scott has said he will ask the Legislature to budget $55 million for springs restoration this session. FFVA supports his proposal.

FFVA's executive committee and the Emerging Leader Development Class visited the Florida Senate last year to a warm welcome.

Another environmentally minded bill, SB312/HB575, will allow farmers who participate in a dispersed water storage program to maintain their agricultural assessment under the greenbelt law. It also exempts from sales tax irrigation equipment, farm trailers, stakes used to support plants during production, and farm equipment replacement parts and repairs. The bill was filed by Sen. Wilton Simpson (R-Tribly) and Rep. Ben Albritton (R-Wauchula). FFVA strongly supports this legislation. SB312 has already passed two of four committees required to bring it to the floor of the Senate.

On the environmental permitting front, Rep. Jimmy Patronis (R-Panama City) has filed HB703, and Simpson is expected to file the companion bill, that will limit the authority of counties to enforce certain wetlands, springs protection and stormwater ordinances. This bill also will affect local governments’ authority to rescind certain comprehensive plan amendments.

“We support HB703,” said Calhoun. “It contains some good ag legislation.”

One more bill related to the environment is a reclaimed water bill filed by Simpson and Rep. Lake Ray (R-Jacksonville). SB536/HB601 will require the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services partner with the Department of Environmental Protection to conduct a study in cooperation with the water management districts on the expansion of the beneficial use of reclaimed water.

GMOs, fireworks and money to pay for it all

The Legislature also is expected to consider bills related to other issues of interest to the agriculture industry. One of these deals with genetically engineered foods. Sen. Jeremy Ring (D-Margate) and Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel-Vasilinda (D-Tallahasssee) have filed SB558 and HB1 that would require FDACS to provide a list of agricultural crops and foods that are cultivated in genetically engineered form. It also calls for mandatory labeling of raw commodities and processed foods made with genetically engineered ingredients. FFVA opposes this bill.

Another bill that, at first glance, would seem to an outsider not relevant to agriculture is SB314/HB4005 filed by Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Shalimar). It would repeal the state laws regulating the sale and use of fireworks and authorize counties and municipalities to regulate those activities. Fireworks are used in pest management on farms under certain circumstances.

Finally, there’s the matter of money for the things that matter. The only business the state Legislature is technically required to complete during the session is to hammer out a budget, which must include funds for agricultural research. The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and FDACS conduct important research that is critical to the success of agricultural interests. Especially at a time when citrus greening threatens the very existence of the Florida citrus industry, proper funding is a top priority for FFVA, which is working to ensure these entities are properly funded.

The two-month legislative session kicks off March 4. FFVA will keep its members updated via the weekly Capitol Voice legislative bulletin starting Feb. 28. To learn how to join FFVA, click here.

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