Audubon Florida
The Advocate
This was a difficult Florida Legislative Session (and it’s not over yet!). Wrangling over the budget and associated bills has pushed Session into overtime; voting on the budget and the troubling SB 2508 will happen on Monday. We saw bills that would have undermined critical conservation programs, kneecapped Florida’s transition to solar energy, destroyed seagrass, and removed guardrails protecting water quality from fertilizer runoff.

Our policy team, led by Audubon’s Beth Alvi and legislative maven Diana Ferguson, pounded the pavement to meet with elected officials to push for amendments that would improve bills, while Communications Director Erika Zambello sounded the alarm to our Audubon advocates when we needed your voice. So many times this session you have stepped up to the plate on behalf of Florida’s special places and wildlife species, and I thank you for it. Kudos to the extended Audubon Florida team – Kelly Cox, Brad Cornell, Chris Farrell, Paul Gray, Caitlin Newcamp, Charles Lee, and Renee Wilson – as well as National Audubon Society’s Julie Hill-Gabriel and Gary Moody for their hard work on bill analysis and drafting this session.Below is a review of both the final state budget and a summary of bills we have been watching and working on. Now, bills affecting Florida’s environment will head to Governor DeSantis’ desk for signature or veto. Our work is not done. Several troublesome bills have made it through the House and Senate and are on their way to the Governor. We will need to call on you to urge him to veto these bills – stay tuned for emails from us this week!

~ Julie Wraithmell, Executive Director of Audubon Florida
Solar panels on top of a roof, with blue sky in the background.
Governor DeSantis Must Veto Rooftop Solar Bill
HB 741, filed by Rep. McClure (R-Dover), threatens rooftop solar growth in Florida and is headed to the desk of Governor DeSantis. We will need your voice to tell the Governor to veto this bill, so stay tuned!Climate change poses an existential threat to two-thirds of North American bird species – but there's still time to protect them. Building momentum in our transition to renewable energy can reduce the impacts of climate change while creating a more resilient future for both birds and people.Florida’s net metering standards were established in 2008, allowing residential and commercial customers with rooftop solar panels to sell their excess energy generation back to the utility at the full retail electrical rate on their monthly bill. HB 741 would drastically reduce the reimbursement from a retail rate to wholesale – creating an industry-breaking disincentive for existing and future rooftop solar locations.Rooftop energy generation is such a small part of Florida's current energy mix that the concerns about cost to the utilities are at best overstated. It is not in the public interest to slow Florida’s transition to renewable energy, an industry that is still in its infancy and with so much room to grow.Governor DeSantis must veto this bill, and the Legislature should let the Public Service Commission, a body with the expertise and mandate to navigate this topic, work on this issue through the transparent and inclusive process already in place.
Female Northern Cardinal sitting on a branch.
Florida State Budget
This year with generous revenue to allocate, the Legislature rightfully put funding towards Florida’s environment, which is the foundation of our state’s economy. Highlights include $430 million for Everglades Restoration, $75 million for Springs, and $100 million for Florida Forever. Nearly $500 million was appropriated for various resiliency investments, fighting the effects of climate change, although the plans for implementing these expenditures is not yet clear.

An emerging pattern of concern: Playing fast and loose with Florida’s transparent and accountable conservation land buying process. $300 million to the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program also includes an expansion of that program to allow full fee acquisitions and the purchase of any agricultural land, not just ecologically valuable ranches or timberlands. Without the science-based and transparent process of Florida Forever or the accountability provided by the Acquisition and Restoration Council’s oversight, there is concern that this could challenge public and landowner confidence alike in the fairness of state land buying.

Read on for the details:
state budget
state budget
Tufted Titmouse sitting on the stem of an orange flower, with another orange flower in the background. Photo: Judy Lyle.
SB 2508 Could Drastically Change Florida's Conservation Programs
A Senate Appropriations Committee bill, SB 2508 - Environmental Resources, will soon be on its way to Governor DeSantis for his signature despite minimal opportunities for public review.

Late last evening, the Joint Appropriations Conference Committee released a revised version of SB 2508. This budget-related bill has the potential to significantly slow down Everglades restoration and will change the face of the successful Rural and Family Lands Program by circumventing transparency procedures the public needs to have confidence in Florida's land-buying programs.

Thanks to the advocacy of hundreds of Audubon members and tireless work by Audubon staff, the bill has undergone multiple revisions to mitigate several harmful provisions, but concerning provisions remain. For example, language that would have hamstrung the South Florida Water Management District’s ability to utilize funds for Everglades restoration projects was removed from the bill due to push back from House leadership.

The revised bill also doubles back on plans to codify the water shortage management rule in Florida statutes – a provision that would have prioritized agricultural water needs above Everglades restoration. A positive change, this revision would instead allow the South Florida Water Management District more flexibility in modifying and updating those rules.

Unfortunately, the bill would still upend the Rural and Family Lands Program, setting it up as a competitor to the Florida Forever program without transparency or accountability.

Currently, the state protects land using three tools: (1) Florida Forever uses a rigorous, science-based, and transparent process to buy or place easements over ecologically important areas;(2) Florida Communities Trust buys parks that are the cornerstone of many communities; and(3) Rural and Family Lands Protection Program (RFLPP) easements protect agricultural buffers from development.SB 2508 would leave land purchase and pricing decisions under the Rural and Family Lands Program to the sole discretion of the Department of Agriculture without science-based guidance or technical oversight by the state’s Acquisition and Restoration Council. The bill would also redirect essential funding needed to preserve Florida's habitat, water quality, and resilience from Florida Forever and Florida Communities Trust. Instead, the bill would radically expand a program without the transparency and accountability taxpayers need to have confidence that properties are acquired based on their merits.

While some of the Conference Committee changes to the bill are laudable, the bill will cause irreparable harm to one of Florida's most critical conservation tools.

There is no word yet on how the Governor will address this bill when it reaches his desk.
Tufted Titmouse. Photo: Judy Lyle.
American White Pelican about to land in the water. Photo: Shantel Rich/Audubon Photography Awards.
Troubling Fertilizer Bill Narrowed Before Heading to Governor for Signature
SB 1291, Nutrient Application Rates, by Sen. Albritton (R-Wauchula), has passed the Legislature and will soon be headed to the Governor for his signature.  The original bill would have allowed all agricultural operations to apply fertilizer based on the recommendation of certified crop advisors, focusing on yield with little regard for downstream effects on water quality.Florida’s citrus industry is in trouble and this bill appears to be an effort to remedy the industry’s concerns. The original version of SB 1000 would have opened the floodgates for all agricultural products to avoid Best Management Practices for fertilizer application, whether they are experiencing yield problems or not.Audubon asked that the bill be limited only to citrus and given an end date. Ultimately, an amendment was included that limited the bill’s scope to citrus only. Additionally, the bill requires IFAS to undertake research on the use of site-specific nutrient management for other commodities by the end of 2023 and provides a sunset date for this test case with citrus.
American White Pelican. Photo: Shantel Rich/Audubon Photography Awards.
Mourning Dove in flight. Photo: John Wolaver.
Grease Disposal Bill Will Improve Water Quality
Restaurants, cafeterias, and fast-food establishments are sources for large amounts of fats, oils, and grease that – if not properly disposed of – can collect inside sewers. Over time, they harden to a concrete-like material that restricts the flow of wastewater through pipes. Cities and counties are known to spend thousands of dollars on plumbing emergencies each year to deal with grease blockages and pump outs.

SB 1110, filed by Sen. Rouson (D-St. Petersburg), creates regulations for grease waste removal and disposal.Appropriate collection, tracking, and disposal of grease will decrease the likelihood of blockages and backups in wastewater infrastructure. By extension, this bill would decrease the likelihood of wastewater, like sewage, from spilling and reaching nearby waterbodies.This bill has passed the Legislature and will be sent to Governor DeSantis for signature.
Mourning Dove. Photo: John Wolaver.
Black Skimmer flock sitting on a sandy beach. Photo: Lynn Collins Bowen.
Stormwater Bill Improved Before Moving Through House and Senate
HB 965, filed by Rep. Truenow (R-Tavares), and its Senate companion, SB 1426 by Sen. Burgess (R-Zephyrhills), allows government entities causing new pollution in our waters to compensate for that off site in regional water treatment projects. This is a departure from current law that requires landowners to offset impacts on site so that their immediate downstream neighbor receives water as clean or cleaner than they did.A few guardrails were added to the bill that we hope will reduce the potential for harm to our waterbodies.Additionally, language was added that defers the implementation of the credit purchasing program until DEP develops rules that will provide a framework for the program.At a time when communities are struggling with how to improve their water quality, it would be more prudent to launch a smaller pilot program rather than opening the process up to the entire state. HB 965 has passed the Legislature and will now go to the Governor for final action.
Black Skimmers. Photo: Lynn Collins Bowen.
Eastern Phoebe perched on a branch, with an insect in its beak. Photo: Sheen Watkins/Audubon Photography Awards.
Pesticide Bill Moves Forward
An amended HB 909 by Rep. Payne (R-Palatka), (Senate companion SB 1210 by Sen. Albritton (R-Wauchula)) passed the Legislature and will soon be sent to the Governor for approval. 

Pesticides applied on farms decades ago can persist on that land long after land use changes, with potential implications to both humans and wildlife. As filed, SB 1210 would have provided a "presumption of compliance” for pesticide application on current or former agricultural lands – an assumption that farms are polluting as permitted without any third-party verification. This bill would have also prohibited local programs from testing for contaminants and providing for remediation when warranted.

The bill was amended and now provides that local programs may continue to enforce pesticide pollution violations, but standards must be set by the Department of Environmental Protection. This is a substantial improvement and will continue to allow local government pollution control programs to do their work effectively.
 
Eastern Phoebe. Photo: Sheen Watkins/Audubon Photography Awards.
Red-shouldered Hawk sitting on a tree branch, with leaves in the background. Photo: David Held/Audubon Photography Awards.
Preemption Bill Improved But Still Privileges Business Profits Over Home Rule
Business Damages Against Local Government, SB 620 (Hutson, R-Palm Coast) and HB 569 (McClure, R-Dover), would have allowed a business to sue if any local government ordinance causes them to lose 15% of their revenue.

The bills were amended such that any business operating in Florida for at least three years may claim damages from a local government if the government enacts or amends an ordinance or charter provision that would cause a reduction of at least 15% of the business' profit. 

The bills were amended to allow for a few exceptions, including ordinances that are required by state or federal law, ordinances required under the state Emergency Management Act, building and fire code ordinances, growth management ordinances, and military affairs. It also exempts ordinances designed to “increase economic freedom.” The bills allow for businesses to recover business damages, attorney fees, and costs against a local government.

Both bills passed the Legislature and will be sent to Governor DeSantis for his signature.
Red-shouldered Hawk. Photo: Photo: David Held/Audubon Photography Awards.
Roseate Spoonbill sitting in a tree, with its bill tucked under its wing. Photo: Pamela Cohen/Audubon Photography Awards.
Annual Report on the Impact of Sea-level Rise and Flood Resiliency Will Be Required
HB 513, Comprehensive Review Study of the Central and Southern Florida Project, filed by Reps. Bartleman (D-Weston) and Busatta Cabrera (R-Coral Gables), would require the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to produce an annual report on the impact of sea-level rise and flood resiliency in Central and South Florida, updating the Central and Southern Florida Project. The bill specifically requires a summary of the findings in the district's annual Sea Level Rise and Flood Resiliency Plan. It also requires that the District compile a list of structures that are expected to fall below the expected service level in the next five years as well as development of initial recommendations for the refurbishment or replacement of the structures identified in the bill.

With sea level rise and flooding becoming increasingly problematic in Florida, this bill is not only timely and but will complement the SFWMD’s ongoing resiliency planning efforts.

HB 513 passed the legislature this week and will be sent to the Governor for his signature.
Roseate Spoonbill. Photo: Pamela Cohen/Audubon Photography Awards.
Common Gallinule swimming in the water, with reeds in the background. Photo: Erika Zambello.
Statewide Flooding and Sea Level Rise Plan
HB 7053, by the House Environment Agriculture and Flooding Subcommittee and Rep. Busatta Cabrera, and SB 1940 by Sen. Brodeur, builds on last year’s legislation requiring the development of a statewide Flooding and Sea Level Rise Plan by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The program was created last year to respond to the needs of inland and coastal communities to flooding and sea level rise and severe storm events.

This year’s bills require the establishment of the Statewide Office of Resilience within the Executive Officer of the Governor. The bills require the Department of Transportation to develop a resilience plan and also revise the types of projects the DEP can fund under the Resilient Florida Grant Program.

Under the framework of these bills, DEP will have the opportunity to take a leadership role in collaboration with local governments and regional entities to develop more comprehensive plans that will prepare the state to become more resilient.

Both bills passed the legislature and HB 7053 will be sent to the Governor for his signature.
Common Gallinule. Photo: Erika Zambello.
Northern Parula perched on a branch, with green in the background. Photo: Linda Steele/Audubon Photography Awards.
Inventories of Critical Wetlands
SB 882, Inventories of Critical Wetlands, filed by Sen. Brodeur (R-Orange Park) and HB 761 (Rep. Truenow, R-Tavares) would require each water management district governing board, in cooperation with local governments, to develop a list of critical wetlands for acquisition using funds from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.

The bill’s sponsor said that as Florida grows and develops, protection of wetlands should be a priority for the multiple benefits that they offer. The bills identify various criteria to determine priority, such as benefit to water quality, restoration value of the wetland, susceptibility of development, and other considerations.

SB 882 has passed the Legislature and will be sent to the Governor for signature.

 
Northern Parula. Photo: Linda Steele/Audubon Photography Awards.
Aerial view of Biscayne Bay National Park. Photo: NPS/Christy Thibodeau.
Damaging Seagrass Bill Dies in Committee
SB 198, Water Resources Management (Sen. A. Rodriguez, R- Doral), would - for the first time - have allowed permits to destroy seagrass in state waters if those seagrasses were replaced in state waters elsewhere.Seagrass restoration efforts in Florida have a history of being both expensive and complex, with few success stories.A mitigation program like one described in SB 198 would make the destruction of seagrass permittable in Florida to a new, deleterious extent – all with little guarantee of lasting replacement through mitigation banks. It is imprudent to plant seagrass without fixing the underlying problems that are affecting seagrass meadows across the state, including: impaired water quality, reduced freshwater flows, turbidity, and prop scarring.An additional danger in this legislation was that it would have – again for the first time – opened up a mechanism for healthy, undisturbed seagrass areas to be impacted by new channels and boat basins that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Water Management Districts have routinely denied permits for over the last 30 years.Additionally, this bill would have allowed mitigation banks on state sovereign submerged lands – lands that are already protected by public ownership.We are grateful that the Chair of the Community Affairs Committee, Sen. Jen Bradley (R-Orange Park), did not schedule the bill for a hearing, blocking its path to the Senate floor. Seagrass beds are environmentally valuable and so hard to restore or recreate that they should not be destroyed in the first place.SB 198 did not pass and ultimately died in committee.
 
Biscyane Bay National Park. Photo: NPS/Christy Thibodeau.
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