Audubon Florida
The Advocate
In this fourth week of Florida’s 2021 Legislative Session, appropriators in both chambers released first drafts of the budget, with some environmental winners and other areas for improvement.  In other legislation, a critical amendment strengthened natural area protections in future road projects, while additional solar bills advanced. Finally, we need your voice! Submit comments by March 29 to protect beach bird nesting habitat in the Florida Panhandle.
Crested Caracara. Photo: Ted Maeurer/Audubon Photography Awards.
State Appropriations Update
This week marked the first release of budget proposals from the House and the Senate on Wednesday and Thursday. While the Governor issues budget recommendations before the start of Session, appropriators in both chambers start the budget negotiation process after several weeks of Session with the release of their budget proposals. Over the next few weeks, House and Senate appropriators will negotiate and agree on the budget that will ultimately be passed by both chambers.

Highlights are below.

House of Representatives


The House’s $4.1 billion budget proposal includes the following:

- $288 million for Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan

- $29 million for NEEP

- $100 million for Florida Forever

- $50 million for state parks

- $50 million for springs

- $25 million for alternative water supply

- $20 million for TMDL

- $10 million for innovative projects

- $29 million for water projects 

- $50 million for beach restoration

- $20 million for planning grants for the Resilient Coastline Initiative

Senate


The Senate’s proposal sets aside $348 million for Everglades restoration, which is higher than the Governor’s request.

- $272 million for Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan

- $71 million for NEEP

- $50 million for Rural and Family Lands

- $75 million for springs

- $30 million for state park management

- $10 million for alternative water supply

- $20 million for TMDL

- $5 million for innovative technology

- $37 million for water projects   

- $50 million for beach restoration


- $10 million for Florida’s Resilient Coastline Initiative


The Senate proposal also includes $1.2 million for Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program and another $1 million for local parks.

Audubon is pleased that the Senate’s environmental proposal of $786 million exceeds even the Governor’s request of $625 million in recurring funding for the next three years for water quality improvements, springs restoration, alternative water supply, and Everglades restoration. The Senate’s environmental proposal is $786 million, exceeding the Governor’s ask of $625 million.


The bill also adds four additional staff to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to assist with the 404 Dredge and Fill program. This is a modest start given DEP has assumed the Army Corps of Engineers’ immense workload for this Clean Water Act permitting program. Audubon remains concerned that more responsibility without commensurate resources will result in less protection for Florida’s wetlands as a result of the state assuming this important program.

Each legislative chamber’s recommended state budget serves as an important starting point to begin work on developing a balanced state budget. The Florida Legislature is constitutionally required to pass a state budget, officially titled as the General Appropriations Act, during the annual regular session.
Crested Caracara. Photo: Ted Maeurer/Audubon Photography Awards.
Pied-billed Grebe. Photo: John Wolaver.
Resilient Florida Program Funding
On Thursday, the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Tomkow (R-Polk City), approved PCB ANR 21-01, a bill that redistributes funding from Documentary Stamp revenues. The bill reallocates two-thirds of the revenue that would annually go towards the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and uses it to fund the Resilient Florida Program and a wastewater grant program. In Florida, over 120,000 properties are currently at risk from frequent tidal flooding; local governments and local climate compacts are developing solutions that include protecting sewage systems, raising roads, and improving stormwater infrastructure. 

The bill directs two-thirds of the $423.2 million in Documentary Stamp tax revenues intended for affordable housing (this year) to the new Resilience Trust Fund and the Wastewater Grants Program; only the remaining one-third of this amount is intended for affordable housing. Regrettably, the Legislature has a long history of sweeping funding from Affordable Housing to fund other priorities. While this bill will take two-thirds of the annual Documentary Stamp revenues intended for affordable housing each year, it also includes provisions to preserve the remaining funds for affordable housing from being swept in the future.  

Affordable housing and resilience in the face of climate change are both urgent needs for Florida communities, and sadly, many of the low income Floridians most dependent upon affordable housing programs are also disproportionately bearing the impacts of climate change. Ultimately, Florida’s long-term resilience requires complementary, rather than competing, housing and climate planning. We are hopeful that House and Senate leadership, along with Governor DeSantis, may be able to apply federal aid – the $10 billion in stimulus funding coming to Florida – to meet both these needs, ensuring communities receive the help they need and support Floridians with rental and mortgage assistance. 

Providing funding for resilience or housing, instead of resilience and housing, may exacerbate both problems and cost more in the long run. Protecting our communities, businesses, and wildlife against the impacts of climate change is inarguably important. Pitting that goal against affordable housing shortchanges us all.
Pied-billed Grebe. Photo: John Wolaver.
Great Egret. Photo: Tammy Pick/Audubon Photography Awards.
New M-CORES Amendment Strengthens Environmental Protections for Future Road Projects
The Senate passed the M-CORES repeal bill, Senate Bill 100, by a near-unanimous vote (one dissent) after senators voted unanimously to include an important amendment.

The amendment offered by Sen. Randolph Bracy (D-Orlando) clearly requires that the Department of Transportation (DOT) must use M-CORES Task Force report recommendations in any future road project planning and design, clarifying that any future turnpike extensions are subject to the task forces’ findings. Thanks to Sen. Bracy and Senate Transportation Committee Chair Sen. Gayle Harrell for their leadership on this important legislation!

Task Force Recommendations Recap

The Task Force recommendations contain definitive and environmentally protective guidance for future road projects, requiring clear protection of conservation lands, springs, wetlands, and important wildlife corridors and habitats. Where wildlife corridors must be crossed, the Task Force reports recommend bridges rather than narrow culvert-like crossings.

Additionally, under the Task Force recommendations, DOT must collaborate with state environmental agencies to assure that conservation lands on the acquisition priority lists near any proposed roadway are actually acquired in fee or easement before road-induced land use changes sacrifice those lands to development. Perhaps most importantly, the Task Force reports strongly recommend that future road construction involve improvement of existing road corridors, rather than “greenfield” turnpikes that cut through rural and agricultural lands, opening them to development.

While Senate Bill 100 does not have an identical House companion, similar bills alive in the House are good candidates to conform and ultimately result in passage of this important legislation.
Great Egret. Photo: Tammy Pick/Audubon Photography Awards.
Belted Kingfisher. Photo: Gail DuBois/Audubon Photography Awards.
Two Energy Bills Move Forward
SB 208, "Renewable Energy," by Senator Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) was heard in the Regulated Industries Committee and aims to expand solar access by allowing entities that install solar panels on a complex, such as a strip mall, to sell surplus generation to connected or directly neighboring businesses. Rates would be set by the selling entity.

Additionally, there is continuing debate and discussion regarding the utility charges to buildings that can meet all their energy consumption with rooftop solar. These charges are largely related to existing infrastructure that the businesses are connected to that can provide power if the solar power collected is less than the demand. The bill passed unanimously and moves on to the Commerce and Tourism Committee.

SB 7066, "Public Records and Public Meetings/Public Service Commission," by the Regulated Industries Committee was heard and approved by unanimous vote this week. The bill seeks to address concerns from the Commission and utilities when presenting critical or confidential information in public meetings. Cases that come before the Public Service Commission (PSC) often focus on highly technical aspects of critical infrastructure, and while submission of documents can be protected and redacted, sharing of information in the semi-judicial format of a PSC hearing are not allowed to be protected.

This bill would allow parties involved in hearings to petition for closure of the meeting to discuss critical information, while still being recorded by a court recorder, and transcripts will be redacted of classified information and then available to the public. The bill now moves on to the Rules Committee to be heard.
Belted Kingfisher. Photo: Gail DuBois/Audubon Photography Awards.
Double-crested Cormorant. Photo: Roger VanGelder/Audubon Photography Awards.
Concerning Seagrass Bill Passes Subcommittee
HB 1335 by Rep. Sirios (R-Merritt Island) and its companion SB 1668 by Sen. A. M. Rodriguez (R-Doral), Seagrass Mitigation Banks, authorize the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund to establish seagrass mitigation banks on sovereign submerged lands. The last time this bad idea made it through the Legislature in 2008, Governor Crist vetoed it.

Specifically, Governor Crist raised three concerns in his veto letter: (1) It is not in the public’s interest to authorize the conveyance of sovereign submerged lands for the purpose of creating credits to be sold to facilitate the destruction of seagrass elsewhere; (2) Artificially created seagrass beds, the long-term success of which has not been conclusively established, will result in a net destruction of seagrass beds on sovereign submerged lands; (3) The necessary exclusion of the public from sovereign submerged lands used as mitigation banks will contravene the public’s common law navigation rights and the “sovereign submerged lands doctrine” embedded in the Florida Constitution."

Audubon has concerns about this bill. Seagrass beds are environmentally valuable and so hard to restore or recreate that they should not be destroyed in the first place. HB 1335 passed the Environment, Agriculture and Flooding subcommittee this week (13 yeas and 3 nays).  SB 1668 is on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee agenda on March 29, 2021.
Double-crested Cormorant. Photo: Roger VanGelder/Audubon Photography Awards.
Least Terns. Photo: Ethan Slattery/Audubon Photography Awards.
Stop Destruction of Nesting Bird Habitat
A draft plan for Gulf Restoration projects includes a deeply flawed proposal to use restoration funding—intended for improving habitats on federally owned lands in the wake of the Gulf oil spill—to build parking lots on top of annual nesting sites for threatened birds in the Gulf Islands National Seashore.  Speak up to prevent this misguided destruction of essential bird habitat and misuse of funds.

Click here to send in your comments by March 29!
Least Terns. Photo: Ethan Slattery/Audubon Photography Awards.
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