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Legislature makes Everglades and springs bills last one to pass the session

Florida legislators sent a message to voters Friday that they are committed to funding the state's ailing Everglades ecosystem and polluted springs and passed legislation that will carve out at least $250 million a year for those purposes for the next 20 years.

The bill, known as the Legacy Florida Act, builds on Amendment 1 which voters approved by a 75 percent margin in 2014, by earmarking a portion of that money to be spent on the state's most fragile ecosystems. It was the last bill to pass this session.

"This is an historic commitment by the Florida Legislature,'' said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, sponsor of the bill. "Tell my constituents, help is on the way."

Under the amendment, lawmakers are obligated to devote  one-third of the revenue from the documentary stamp tax on real estate transactions to the Land Acquisition Trust fund to pay for land and water conservation programs.

Last year the fund collected $743.5 million and this year lawmakers benefited from an improving real estate market and more robust tax collections to have $902 million to dedicate for environmental programs.

The Legacy Florida Act, (HB 989/SB 1168) proposed by incoming Senate president Negron and Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, requires the state to set aside at 25 percent of all Amendment 1 funds up to $200 million a year to fund Everglades restoration projects over the next 20 years, whichever is less, and $50 million to pay for springs restoration.

Legislators are also poised to approve their $82 billion budget and will steer the bulk of the new revenue in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund into already-identified projects intended to restore the Everglades. Last year, legislators dedicated $79 million for the Everglades, but this year they will spend $205 million. Another $50 million will go into springs restoration and $35 million in rural and family lands.

The state is facing two lawsuits from environmental groups accusing lawmakers of steering millions of the nearly $750 million from the trust fund into state programs that they argued should have been paid for by general revenue funds.

This year, environmentalists are still unhappy about the Legislature's decision to dedicate $188 million in the environmental money to salaries and expenses, freeing up general revenue funds to finance other projects in the budget.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, defended it, saying it is "almost unheard of that your administrative expenses be less than 10 percent" and this budget spends 3 percent of Amendment 1 funds on salaries and expenses.