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Lawmakers Want Money For North Florida Waterways

Rainbow River State Park
The two motorcyclists were found near a paved path inside Rainbow River State Park after colliding with the border fence late Saturday night. (WUFT News)

A coalition that includes two state House members and a former congressman announced Monday it will fight for money to protect waterways in North Florida as Senate President Joe Negron tries to move forward with an ambitious proposal to spend heavily on cleaning waters in South Florida.

Called "Stand Up for North Florida," coalition members said during a news conference at the Capitol that a more equitable distribution of money is needed statewide from a conservation trust fund after passage of a constitutional amendment in 2014.

Coalition members didn't offer specific uses for money they'd like to see go to North Florida.

State Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna, and Rep. Jay Fant, R-Jacksonville, along with former U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, said Negron's $2.4 billion proposal further floats most of the trust fund dollars to the south.

"My great concern is that North Florida and North Central Florida are already derelict in receiving funds that is shared by the state for the environment," Fant said. "The notion of sending billions of dollars to an unproven land-grab in South Florida, for potentially dubious results, continues to leave the rest of Florida alone."

Despite pushback from sugar growers and other farmers, Negron proposes to use the money to buy sugar-industry and farm land as part of an effort to store and clean water and reduce releases from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.

Negron's plan, which has received a mixed reception from experts throughout South Florida and in Senate hearings, would require a 50-50 funding match between the state and federal government to buy the land, with the state's portion involving the bonding of $100 million annually.

Voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2014 --- known as Amendment 1 --- that directed 33 percent of the proceeds from the existing real-estate tax, known as documentary stamps, go into the trust fund for land and water maintenance and acquisition across Florida for 20 years.

"I just want us to be mindful of all of our Amendment 1 dollars, that they're not all spent in one place, in one project," Drake said. "This may not be the best long-term solution statewide, especially not for the Panhandle, or the spring areas and Northwest Florida, that are in need of their own funding."

Negron has acknowledged that the money for his proposal --- intended to reduce the toxic algae blooms that have appeared in waterways in his East Coast district as a result of the releases from the lake --- would have to come from other parts of the state budget.

Coalition members said in the current fiscal year, South Florida has received 75 percent of the trust-fund dollars while, 1.6 percent was directed toward the Suwannee River region, 4 percent to Northwest Florida, 4.4 percent to Southwest Florida and 14.4 percent to the St. Johns River region.

Southerland said Negron's plan is a "subject of concern" as the state faces projections of declining revenue.

"South Florida receives the majority of these funds, and that is not the way Amendment 1 was sold to Florida voters," Southerland said.

Southerland said North and Central Florida contain the majority of the state's natural springs and 70 percent of Florida's river watersheds.

A coalition in support of North Florida waters isn't a new idea.

Last August, after Negron announced his proposal, then-lawmakers Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, and Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola Beach, announced they intended to set up a committee to fight to have money used for North Florida waters.

The announcement about Stand Up for North Florida also comes as Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, has proposed a measure (SB 234) that would set aside $35 million annually from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund for the St. Johns River, its tributaries or lakes in the Keystone Heights region.

Bradley's plan is similar to "Legacy Florida" money in which lawmakers last year earmarked $200 million a year for Everglades projects, $50 million for the state's natural springs and $5 million each year Lake Apopka, all from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.

Negron was a sponsor of Legacy Florida, which followed $231.9 million that lawmakers approved in 2014 for a number of South Florida water projects, including bridging a portion of the Tamiami Trail.

Bradley has said he supports Negron's latest proposal.

The News Service of Florida is a wire service to which WUFT News subscribes.