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‘First Mondays’ tackles Florida legislation, U.S. Sugar purchase

By Staff | Apr 9, 2009

During the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s April installment of their “First Mondays” program, SCCF Natural Resource Policy director Rae Ann Wessel discussed current Florida legislative session and how some current legislative proposals can affect Southwest Florida and the U.S. Sugar deal.

Wessel began the program by discussing the 2009 budget and legislative initiatives affecting Southwest Florida and the restoration of the Everglades, including the U.S. Sugar deal.

“The budget is just abominable this year. The DEP (Department of Environmental Protection), which manages state parks plus some wetland permitting, plus mining and sewage treatment processing and air quality and all those things that make our lives desirable, are being asked to cut their budgets by 20 percent,” Wessel explained, noting that two of Florida’s important restorative agencies, Florida Forever and Northern Everglades, will experience severe cutbacks.

“There’s definitely a difficulty, if you’re a legislator, in trying to balance needs for projects and infrastructure versus kids going to school, people being fed and things like that,” Wessel said. “Some of the most egregious bills have been submitted by our representatives.”

She then went on to discuss several proposed House and Senate bills that could respectively hurt and help restoration processes here in Southwest Florida.

One of the more damaging bills she mentioned was Senate Bill 730, which would abolish the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), a government agency responsible for growth management and controlling sprawl.

Another proposal, Senate Bill 630, would prohibit local municipalities from levying impact fees for three years.

In addition, another potentially harmful proposal – House Bill 1123 – was made by representative Trudi Williams that will “streamline duplication,” but according to Wessel, the bill has much more dangerous ramifications.

“One of the most egregious things that’s in it is the usurping of federal processes, it would actually take over the federal permit review process,” Wessel said.

The more positive proposals include House Bill 1296 for Healthy Beaches, legislation envisioned by Sanibel mayor Mick Denham and sponsored by Representative Gary Abuchon.

“That’s a good bill, Healthy Beaches. It basically says that if there is a contamination that closes beaches, the DEP would be required to find the source. Right now all they do is close the beach and wait for it to go away,” she continued. “It’s a good bill that needs our support.”

“If you’re interested in getting involved and writing some letters and making some phone calls, there are some particular projects that we support and some that we definitely do not support and all of these need more voices to be speaking against them or for them,” Wessel added.

The next topic of discussion focused on Governor Charlie Crist’s announcement on April 1 which said the purchase of U.S. Sugar lands in order to restore flow to the Everglades would be cut down significantly.

However, Wessel maintains that – modifications aside – this is still very good news.

“This basically keeps the project alive. It does reduce the amount of acreage, it’s about 60 percent of what it was previously. It is now 72,500 acres. It’s still the largest state purchase ever and the price has come down about 65 percent to $533 million, from $1.34 billion,” she said. “It has an interesting twist in that it gives us the option for 10 years to have right of first refusal on the remaining 107,500 acres. So they won’t be able to sell those to any other taker until we have a first bite at the apple.”

“Basically, it’s a better deal. It reduces the state’s investment by $800 million, it reduces the debt service by $65 million a year, triples the lease rate that will bring in a minimum of $40 million a year,” Wessel said, in addition to freeing up revenue in future years for restoration projects.

If you have any questions about legislation, how you can make your voice heard or about the U.S. Sugar purchase, contact Rae Ann Wessel at SCCF, 472-2329, and visit www.sccf.org.

“First Mondays: Policy at SCCF” are held on the first Monday of every month in the SCCF Nature Center auditorium, located at 3333 Sanibel-Captiva Road.