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Rare public tension over Senate plan to slash state park funding for water project


A fight over polluted waters ignited a rare public battle of wills on Wednesday between some of the top Republican leaders in the Florida Senate as they worked on a new state budget.

Sen. Joe Negron, who is set to become Senate President next year, muscled an amendment into the state budget, over the objections of the current budget chairman and former Senate President Tom Lee, that would slash proposed funding for state park improvements by 30 percent. That money would then be redirected to a water project aimed at stopping hundreds of millions of gallons of polluted water from flowing into the St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee rivers.

Negron said the polluted water flooding from Lake Okeechobee into his home region along the St Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon needs to be addressed by the Legislature.

“I feel on behalf of my community, I can’t vote for a budget today that I haven’t addressed an underlying emergency situation that doesn’t just affect my community, but also affects southwest Florida,” Negron said.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, objected to Negron’s push, saying he supports the idea of Negron’s project, but was opposed to him taking money from the state parks to do it. Hays is the chairman of a budget subcommittee that has jurisdiction over funding of the state park system.

“I just don’t like this amendment because you just overpowered the state parks,” Hays said.

Hays asked Negron to withdraw the amendment and he would help him find the money elsewhere in the budget before the full spending bill makes it to the floor of the Senate for a vote next week. But Negron refused to yield, saying he needed the item in the budget, but would be happy to help Hays find replacement money for the parks later.

“You seem to be determined to jam it on there,” Hays said.

Negron’s amendment would take $6.7 million out of the state parks facility improvement fund. That would cut the proposed funding in the budget from $22.5 million to $15.7 million. That $6.7 million, combined with another $750,000 redirected from elsewhere in the budget, would be shifted to a water storage project that would keep billions of gallons of polluted waters from flowing from Lake Okeechobee.

Other key senators jumped to Hays’ defense. State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said Negron’s project qualifies as an emergency but “we need to respect the committee process.” Lee, a Brandon Republican, also sided with Hays, saying the subcommittee process was designed to “protect the least of us from the most influential” and that the committee should reject Negron’s idea because it had not been fully worked through Hays’ committee.

Negron responded to the criticism saying he submitted the project to Hay’s committee earlier in the process and it didn’t get the funding it needs, so he’s using the amendment process legitimately to get it done.

He had his own group of supporters including Sens Garrett Richter, R-Naples, and Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Ft. Myers, who both applauded Negron’s plan as a way to bring relief to southwest Florida from pollution coming from the Caloosahatchee River.

Negron ultimately won. His amendment passed on an 11-6 votes. Those opposing the measure included Lee, Hays, Latvala, Senate Rules Chairman David Simmons, Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano and the health budget subcommittee chairman Rene Garcia.

Typically such open drama over the budget are rare, as evidenced by that fact that 49 other budget amendments were proposed Wednesday with very little public discussion on any of them. The scrum over Negron’s amendment took more than 15 minutes of debate to resolve.