Audubon Florida
The Advocate
The 2023 Florida Legislative Session ended at 11 a.m. yesterday, with a total of 356 bills passed this year. House and Senate leaders also voted on the state’s spending plan for fiscal year 2023-2024, totaling $117 billion, the largest in state history.  

This plan exceeds Governor DeSantis’ ask by $1 billion and also exceeds both the House and Senate’s initial proposals.  Highlights include over $1.6 billion for water and Everglades as well as over $1 billion for land acquisition programs. 

In this issue of the Advocate, we share an update on the budget passed Friday as well as several relevant bills that crossed the finish line this week. Stay tuned for a more comprehensive wrap-up of this legislative session – next week we will bring you a full summary of the good and bad from our Executive Director Julie Wraithmell and Senior Director of Policy Beth Alvi.
 
Great Blue Heron
Final Budget
The budget passed by the House and Senate includes many appropriations for the environment, Everglades restoration, and land acquisition. Highlights are below.
 
budget table
budget table
Budget Highlights
Historic Land Appropriation

Of note, in addition to $100 million for Florida Forever and $100 million for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, an additional $850 million appropriation appeared in the budget late last week. These funds are earmarks for habitat conservation in Northeast Florida (the “Ocala to Osceola Corridor” or “O2O”) and Southwest Florida (the “Caloosahatchee-Big Cypress Basin”).

The O2O acquisitions are already identified through the Florida Forever Program as a priority for purchase for conservation and include parcels in Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Clay, Columbia, Duval, Hamilton, Lake, Marion, Putnam, Union, and Volusia counties. 

The Caloosahatchee-Big Cypress Land Acquisition project in Hendry and Collier counties will protect and preserve approximately 72,000 acres of conservation and agriculture land and includes an option for easement sellers to lease back acreage for a limited time. Lease terms that are favorable for conservation will be key and remain to be negotiated between sellers and the state. Both of these projects would provide critical linkages for wildlife, recreational opportunities for people, and benefits for water quality and carbon sequestration.

This is the largest appropriation for land conservation in Florida history and presents a remarkable opportunity for progress in these two regions of the state. While these acquisitions may be outside the Florida Forever program, it will be important that the transparency and accountability Floridians have come to expect from conservation land buying are applied to these projects too.

Reducing Local Control of Fertilizer Application

Unfortunately, the budget’s implementing bill can become a vehicle for last minute policy changes, circumventing the transparency and accountability of the committee process. Last Sunday night, a troubling provision was added to the implementing bill, blocking local governments from adopting new local fertilizer ordinances or amending old ones over the next year to include a ban or seasonal restrictions on fertilizer application.

Substantive policy changes like this should always go through the committee process where the public has an opportunity to participate in the discussion, and this amendment is a great example why. Floridians are dealing with the increasing severity and intensity of harmful algal blooms and red tides. They want decision-makers at every level of government – including cities and counties – to do their part.

Urban fertilizer runoff into stormwater is a major contributor of nitrogen and phosphorus into our waterways. Reducing fertilizer use is one of their best tools for protecting water quality. A $250,000 appropriation to University of Florida’s IFAS program to study the benefits of fertilizer restrictions is included in the budget, however the timeline for completion of this research is hasty: IFAS must submit a final report, including results and recommendations, by December 31, 2023. This timeline is wholly inadequate for a robust study to be completed, though the reality is, IFAS has been tasked with similar studies several times before, in an attempt by fertilizer marketers to delay further restrictions.
 
Yellow-throated Warbler sitting on a piece of garden equipment.
Concerning Bills Headed to the Governor for Signature
Bill Effectively Eliminates Ability to Challenge Comprehensive Plans

SB 540 by Sen. DiCeglie (R-Indian Rocks) would have a chilling effect on the ability of citizens to challenge poor city and county land use decisions and fight sprawl in their own communities. Under this bill, average citizens who undertake the daunting and expensive task of challenging local comprehensive plan amendments would be responsible for the attorney’s fees of the local government and developers they challenge if they are unsuccessful. The risk of an unsuccessful challenge will prove too great for most citizens and public interest nonprofits, effectively eliminating this important avenue for taxpayers to seek remedy and accountability from their local governments. This will have implications for Florida natural resources ranging from the Everglades to the Apalachicola, the Indian River Lagoon to North Florida’s springs.

SB 540 passed both chambers and will soon be headed to the Governor for his signature. Audubon will be asking the Governor to preserve this important avenue for citizens to protect their community’s character and natural resources by vetoing SB 540.

Bill Would Discourage Environmentally Friendly Local Laws

Along similar lines, SB 170 by Sen. Trumbull (R-Panama City) is ready to be sent to the Governor to be signed into law.  

Provisions in this bill would allow businesses in Florida to sue local governments to block enforcement of local laws that could hurt their business.

Under the proposal, businesses can sue county and city governments over local ordinances they believe are "arbitrary or unreasonable." If the plaintiff wins, governments could be responsible for up to $50,000 in attorney’s fees, and the ordinance would have to be eliminated.

The bill requires a local government prior to passing the ordinance to post a business impact statement, detailing its purpose, estimated financial impacts, and how much enforcing it will cost taxpayers. The bill provides exceptions for ordinances related to land development measures (F.S. 163), the adoption of budgets, procurement, and grant agreements, as well as compliance with state or federal mandates.

This bill – among many others passed this session – chills the ability of local governments to address the needs of their communities and privileges the interest of the few over the many.
Yellow-throated Warbler. Photo: Mark Eden/Great Backyard Bird Count.
American Oystercatcher dips bill into shallow wave.
Governor Signs SB 1604 into Law
SB 1604, by Sen. Ingoglia (R-Springhill), was signed into law by Governor DeSantis Friday afternoon, just hours after Sine Die. 

In its original filed version, this bill had several elements of concern for smart growth advocates. SB 1604 was amended in its last two committees to address the vast majority of concerns and also became a vehicle for language addressing the ongoing dispute between the state and the former Reedy Creek Improvement District.

The bill takes effect on July 1, 2023, except for the provisions concerning independent special districts, which took effect once the bill becomes law.

Growth management bills such as these limit the ability of cities and counties to protect themselves from sprawl and hamper the ability of local governments to make decisions that are appropriate for them.
American Oystercatcher. Photo: Danny Sauvageau/Audubon Photography Awards.
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