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Audubon Florida
The Advocate
Crested Caracara. Photo: Rob Sabatini/Audubon Photography Awards.
We are Back with the First Advocate Newsletter of 2021!
Legislative committee meetings began this week in the run up to the March 2021 Legislative Session. You can count on Audubon to report at the end of each committee week and each week of Session, to keep you up to speed on the issues facing Florida’s environment and letting you know when your voice can make a real difference.

Audubon expects this to be a challenging appropriations year because of the economic impacts of the pandemic. One reason for optimism: Florida's residential real estate market has remained robust, and doc stamp revenues, which support Florida Forever, are more resilient than general revenue.

Our commitment to funding for natural resources agencies, landmark conservation land buying programs, investment in resource protection, and Everglades and freshwater spring restoration are among our highest priorities. Additionally we recognize that there will be opportunities related to M-CORES, wetlands regulation, and renewable energy that can help us advance our goals for Florida's water, habitat, and climate.
Crested Caracara. Photo: Rob Sabatini/Audubon Photography Awards.
Great Egret. Photo: Trudy Walden/Audubon Photography Awards.
Senate Natural Resource Committees Start Off with Briefings, Agency Introductions
This week, the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee chaired by Sen. Jason Brodeur (R-Sanford) heard updates from natural resource agency leadership. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Florida Department of Agricultural Services provided an overview of their implementation of last session’s SB 712, “The Clean Waterways Act.” DEP also provided an update on implementation of their continuing program – The Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act – and an overview of the status of their septic to sewer conversion programs.

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Environment, and General Government, chaired by Sen. Albritton (R-Barton), heard a briefing on the State’s collaborative efforts to fight coral disease, presented by DEP. Additionally, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission educated members on the agency’s programs for Threatened and Endangered species.
Great Egret. Photo: Trudy Walden/Audubon Photography Awards.
Sandhill Crane. Photo: Rolland Swain/Audubon Photography Awards.
Legislature May Pull the Plug on M-CORES
Implementation of Florida’s 2019 proposal to build three new “M-CORES” turnpikes is not getting a lot of love from the 2021 Legislature. Fast-tracking the construction of 330 miles of new turnpikes through Florida’s most rural and environmentally sensitive areas was a pet project of former Senate President Galvano in 2019. However, legislatively created Task Forces in late 2020 returned damning evaluations of their need and financial feasibility.

This year,  new Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Dade City) has said publicly that he is not a fan of the proposal. Further, as credible voices for fiscal restraint have pointed out, the cost to build this much roadway may be over $25 billion. That cost could divert funds from urgently needed highway improvements, particularly in urban areas.

Audubon worked with Sen. Tom Lee to create the task forces in the original 2019 legislation and later Audubon’s Dr. Paul Gray and Charles Lee were appointed to serve on them.  The Task Force recommendations are very strong, and would require road-builders to favor expanding existing roads rather than build new ones and avoid conservation lands and wildlife habitats. They even require DOT to develop and fund a plan to acquire for preservation Florida Forever projects not yet purchased by the state within a 10-mile radius of any project. The paths of these new roads would have opened large parts of remaining rural Florida to development, and potentially destroyed important conservation lands and wildlife habitats.

The M-CORES statute requires DOT to adhere to the Task Force recommendations, which have statutory weight, and are not just advisory.

The Task Forces called on the Legislature to re-visit the timeline for the M-CORES projects, pushing dates out substantially from the unrealistic December 2022 construction start date and 2030 completion date in current law.

Extending or eliminating arbitrary deadlines will allow DOT to reprogram some of the proposal’s extraordinary funding to transportation projects with demonstrated need and feasibility.

Audubon will also advocate for legislative direction that these Task Force recommendations should apply to any future proposals for these roads.

This is not the first time we have seen these road proposals, nor will it likely be the last. Road-builders and land speculators have advocated them for decades. If the M-CORES legislation is completely repealed, the strong  protections the Task Forces have required for conservation lands, wildlife, rural lands, and more would be lost.  

By amending the timeline but not rejecting the entirety of the M-CORES legislation, we can ensure that if these proposals are ever resurrected, so too will the Task Force evaluations and recommendations. New road proposals of this magnitude must always be gauged on their need, merit, and financial feasibility.
Sandhill Crane. Photo: Rolland Swain/Audubon Photography Awards.
Eastern Phoebe. Photo: Andrea Hedblom / Audubon Photography Awards.
Public Service Commission Hosts Energy Efficiency Rule Revision Workshop
On Thursday, January 14, the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) held a staff-directed workshop on potential amendments to the Florida Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act (FEECA), adopted in 1980. FEECA requires the PSC to review and approve energy efficiency goals proposed by Florida’s electric utilities; efficiency is desirable because it saves money for consumers and reduces energy consumption. However, FEECA could work better than it currently does - Florida has some of the worst electric utility energy efficiencies, and some of the highest utility bills, in the nation. Energy efficiency advocates asked the PSC to broaden the scope of its proposed rule revision to help Florida do better on both fronts.

Currently, the proposed rule changes are narrow and wouldn’t provide for important updates needed in how the PSC screens energy conservation programs. Audubon is encouraging the PSC to give substantial weight to the public benefit of reducing energy consumption—and greenhouse gas emissions—in addition to its consideration of consumer costs.

PSC staff are accepting written comments on the proposed rule until February 15. A Commission-led workshop is likely to be scheduled for mid-summer.
Eastern Phoebe. Photo: Andrea Hedblom / Audubon Photography Awards.
Cedar Waxwing. Photo: Bob Cochran/Audubon Photography Awards.
Coronavirus Causes Major Budget Uncertainty
Despite recent gains in general revenue taxes, the coronavirus pandemic has left a major dent in the state budget ($2.7 billion less than what was expected before the coronavirus first began), in turn creating a lot of uncertainty in funding for important conservation and water projects and programs.

Lead economist Amy Baker stated that a “heavy risk” remains as Florida tries to recover from the pandemic. Speaking at the Senate Appropriations Committee, she cautioned against relying on the economic spike from this summer when forecasting revenue estimates. Baker also anticipates increases in spending in healthcare due to the coronavirus that will dip into available resources.

Florida relies heavily on sales tax revenues from the tourism and hospitality industries – both of which have been greatly reduced during the pandemic.  House and Senate Budget Chairs Jay Trumbell (R- Panama City) and Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland)  have acknowledged the need for cuts across the board because of shortfalls in General Revenue, spikes in healthcare needs, and a tourism industry in desperate need of recovery.

Audubon’s policy team remains optimistic that since doc stamp revenues were not as affected as General Revenue, funding for Florida Forever, water, and the environment will be remain strong.
Cedar Waxwing. Photo: Bob Cochran/Audubon Photography Awards.
Snowy Egret and Roseate Spoonbill. Photo: Chuck Murphy / Audubon Photography Awards.
Pop Quiz: You May Be a Legislative Super Influencer
While all Floridians’ voices are important for influencing legislation during session, if your state representative or senator sits on key committees that hear environmental bills, your voice can be especially powerful for Florida’s wildlife and wildlands. Now in these early days of legislative season, make sure you know who your representative and senator are and check their committee assignments. If your elected officials sit on any of the following committees, your voice is especially important this year:

Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Environment, and General Government
Environment and Natural Resources
Regulated Industries

Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee
State Affairs
Environment, Agriculture & Flooding Subcommittee

Look up your state senator and representative here.
Snowy Egret and Roseate Spoonbill. Photo: Chuck Murphy / Audubon Photography Awards.
Newest Edition of the Naturalist is Out!
Catch up on 2020 successes, our COVID-19 adaptations, an Audubon Assembly summary, and so much more.

Click here to read an online edition.
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