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Funding for environmental programs, including Everglades restoration efforts, appear tied up in budget end game

By on February 13, 2012

Funding for environmental programs including Everglades restoration efforts appear tied up in the budget end game, according to documents available Friday showing a huge gulf in the positions of House and Senate negotiators, reports Michael Peltier of the News Service of Florida.

The House spending plan has set aside more than $40 billion in funds to pay for new restoration efforts in the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee, the northern Everglades and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers.

The Senate, so far has balked at funding those programs, a lack of support that some environmental observers, at this juncture anyway, say may be being more strategic than philosophical.

Included in the House’s $69.2 billion budget proposal approved Thursday is a host of earmarks for restoration efforts supported by Gov. Rick Scott, whose own budget proposal called for spending more than $40 million on Everglades related water projects.

Included in the House appropriations bill is $30 million for water projects targeting Lake Okeechobee, the Central Everglades Restoration Plan, commonly referred to as CERP, and water quality projects in the Caloosahatchee River in Southwest Florida and the St. Lucie River farther east.

The House also sets aside $19.6 million for Everglades debt payments and $4.8 million for new debt load. Finally, the chamber sets aside $5 million for what is expected to be environmental easement payments in the northern Everglades.

Senate subcommittee budget recommendations produced this week show no comparable funding levels, a void that led some staunch environmental leaders to raise the alarm.

“We are disappointed that the Florida Senate has decided to risk the future of Florida’s water supply by refusing to provide any funding for Everglades restoration,” said Kirk Fordham, president and CEO of the Everglades Foundation, to members earlier this week. “We urge the Florida Senate to follow the lead of Gov. Rick Scott by providing a minimum of $40 million to restore the Everglades.”

Neither budget so far has set aside funds for the Florida Forever program, which before the housing market collapse and subsequent revenue free fall was receiving hundreds of millions for buying environmental land. In recent years, lawmakers have turned their attentions to the Everglades in an effort to focus attention on water supply concerns to gain critical federal support.

“This is not the time to delay the vital work that needs to be done. More than 7 million Floridians depend on the Everglades for fresh water,” Fordham said. “Any delay threatens the welfare of 1 in 3 Floridians and the economic well-being of our state.”

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida, said Friday’s he’s confident that the Senate plans on putting some funding into the budget for Everglades projects, but has chosen not to for strategic reasons.

“The word we’re getting is they are going to do something but that they are going to give themselves some flexibility going into conference,” Draper said.

The Senate Budget Committee meets Wednesday to consider its spending package. A Senate vote is likely the week after. Everglades funding is likely to be tied into those talks.

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