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Environmental budget blows up as House retreats, Senate calls exercise 'a fool's errand'

Everglades@MaryEllenKlas

Negotiations blew up Saturday over the Legislature's $3.6 billion environmental budget after the Florida House returned with a new offer that rescinded agreements forged the previous two days, forcing the entire budget silo to be bumped up to leadership to resolve.

"We've now spent two days on what, in essence, is a fool's errand,'' said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the chair of the Conference Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources.

He then declared that all 359 line items will be resolved by House and Senate budget chairs, Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. After the meeting, Bradley called the two days of meetings "a charade."

"This was destined to fail and this budget was not going to work out in any meaningful way,'' he concluded. It was not clear when Latvala and Trujillo would meet to resolve the budget, which includes many of the pivotal environmental projects sought by lawmakers as a condition of their support for Senate President Joe Negron's priority -- a water-storing reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.

Rep. Ben. Albritton, R-Wauchula, the House's lead negotiator, disagreed with Bradley's description and said he was optimistic the issues would be resolved.

"It's an accumulation of priorities,'' he said. "I'm not going to get worked up over incremental differences or huge differences." 

The House rescinded a $5 million offer to use Land Acquisition Trust Fund money to pay for the restoration of the St. Johns River and its tributaries and the Keystone Heights Lake Region. The project is a top priority of Bradley's, who filed legislation authorizing the expenditure and he was visibly irritated at the House's change of heart. 

Bradley said that the Senate's decided Friday to "meet halfway" with the House over their differences on water projects by offering $45.5 million but the House countered by offering only $7.5 million more over its $20 million offer.

And on beach projects, where the Senate originally wanted to spend $50 million to the House's $30 million, "rather than meet us at a number to close it out, the House inexplicably overshot by $5 million in order to bump it,'' Bradley said.

On funding for projects in the Florida Keys, the House has agreed to spend only $5 million, he said, compared to the Senate's $20 million and "has not moved at all."

A project important to Gov. Rick Scott, providing local matching grants for homeowners to convert septic tanks to sewer lines which the House started at $5 million, went backwards on Saturday as the House rescinded that amount and went to zero. The Senate wants to spend $10 million.

The Senate offered to agree to a House request to spend $1.7 million on local parks was also rescinded, opening the issue again. And on the Florida Communities Trust, the House asked for $15 million; the Senate agreed to that amount and on Saturday the House moved it's budget item again back to $10 million.

"Rather than moving together, we moved apart,'' Bradley said, adding that he was optimistic the differences would be worked out. 

After the meeting, Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon blamed House leadership for forcing Albritton's hand on the issues that had been previously resolved.

"This was not Chair Albritton's doing,'' said Braynon of Miami Gardens.  

Rep. Kristin Jacobs of Coconut Creek, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said she did not agree that the environmental budget was destined to fail.

"This has been a very complicated process and it's typical for these discussions to go the way they have,'' she said. "There's are a lot of moving parts here.'' she said.

She said that as  one of the House's conferees, she was not consulted about the offer and disagreed with parts of it.

"I think our hands are tied in some respects and some of those decisions are being made by leadership above my pay grade,'' she said. "There are other dollars and priorities that I would like to have seen us do and hopefully we can accomplish it at the next stop."

Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, said she was disappointed in the failure of the House to agree to the septic tank conversion program, which has been identified as a need to address toxins flowing in to the Indian River Lagoon.

"I hope that is something that is reconsidered whenever we bump this up,'' she said.

The House also proposed adding language relating to how the money can be spent, proposing that any candidate for office is barred from hosting a Farm Share food distribution event during the campaign season.

Albritton also proposed restricting marketing funds: The Department of Citrus could not spend funds on advertising, only on research. The Florida Parks system would have to have a spending plan before advertising money is spent promoting state parks.

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