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SCCF provides legislative update on Week 5

By HOLLY SCHWARTZ - | Apr 6, 2021

PHOTO PROVIDED Holly Schwartz

With four weeks left to the 2021 legislative session both the House and Senate discussed their preliminary budgets in their respective Appropriations Committees last week. The House has proposed a $97 billion budget to the Senate’s $95 billion. The governor’s budget is in the middle at $96.6 billion. In a role reversal from last year, the House has recommended more than the Senate for the Florida Forever land acquisition program — $100 million to the Senate’s $50 million. The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation is advocating for $100 million for Florida Forever.

A contentious feature of the House and Senate budgets was the use of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, also known as the Sadowski Fund, to pay for sea level rise and wastewater infrastructure improvements. Those opposed to this funding plan contend that the needs around affordable housing have been elevated due to the pandemic and that we should be able to fund all three priorities with the help of federal stimulus dollars. Proposals are still fluid and subject to adjustment as updated state revenue figures are being presented next week.

Bills of interest that advanced last week:

Water Quality and Ecosystem Restoration Bills heard in the Senate Environment and Natural Resources committee were SB 1668, Seagrass Mitigation Banks, that propose to create a seagrass mitigation program similar to the already existing land-based mitigation program that allows developers to purchase mitigation credits in exchange for construction impacts to environmentally sensitive properties. This proposal is fraught with concerns not the least of which hinges on the uncertainly of the water quality needed for the survival of the seagrass in the areas of the proposed mitigation banks. The other concern is that seagrass is located in waters considered sovereign submerged land and is owned by the state, therefore the benefit to citizens by allowing use by for-profit enterprises was a matter of debate. This bill and its House companion, HB 1335, both have two more committee stops before being considered by their full chambers.

Another water quality related bill heard last week was SB 1522, Implementation of the Blue Green Algae Task Force Recommendations. This bill had been watered down through the amendment process to allow for some of the recommendations to be considered through the agency rulemaking process, but two important features survived — the requirement of septic tank inspections at least every five years and requiring a focus on Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) to prioritize projects “in areas likely to yield maximum pollutant reductions.” The bill received unanimous support and has two committee stops left. The House version, HB 1225, has not yet been heard in committee.

The House Environment, Agriculture and Flooding Subcommittee addressed wildlife trafficking on March 30. HB 783, Racketeering of Aquatic and Wild Animal Life, revises the term “racketeering activity” to include “certain actions relating to the illegal taking, killing, wounding, sale, purchase, or possession of wild animal life, freshwater aquatic life, or marine life, and related crimes.” This language pinpoints the issue of wildlife trafficking, which has caused problems across Florida — even on Sanibel — in recent years, and creates additional tools to prosecute criminal organizations for animal-related crimes for monetary gain.

According to the bill analysis there is a significant black-market trade in Florida’s wildlife, freshwater aquatic life, and marine life. This includes live wildlife and aquatic species, including captive wildlife, as well as eggs, products, and parts thereof. Trafficking in wild species is the fourth most profitable transnational crime behind the drug trade, arms trade, and human trafficking. Criminal organizations are often involved in more than one illegal trade.

The bill was unanimously supported 15-0 and has one more committee stop. The Senate version, SB 776, was also unanimously supported by the full Senate 40-0 and is in messages to the House. This bill has a high likelihood of passing this session.

Also discussed in House Environment, Agriculture and Flooding last week was contentious HB 1601, Farming Operations. This bill, along with Senate companion SB 88, propose to strengthen the protections granted to Florida’s farms from “nuisance” lawsuits. In a clash between sprawl and traditional farming, proponents of the bill argue that as Florida becomes more crowded, people will increasingly live in more rural areas, so additional protections are needed to prevent frivolous lawsuits against farms for practices they have used for decades. However, the language present in this bill has created much concern among environmental and civil rights groups. Its ambiguity creates opportunities for absolute protection from lawsuits in certain cases, as long as state and federal regulations are not explicitly being broken. It also limits the mile radius in which residents can file suits against farms for violations to just half a mile from the source. Additionally, it adds “particle emissions” as a result of normal “farming operations,” which would excuse farms for creating harmful smoke and dust pollution. Multiple amendments were suggested to attempt to reduce the ambiguity and focus the text of the bill on the stated purpose of helping farms avoid unnecessary litigation, but they were all voted down. Numerous representatives and public groups spoke out against the possible curtailment of public recourse for harm that farms may potentially cause, but the bill was voted favorably, 14-4. This bill has one final committee stop and its Senate companion has been approved by the full Senate 37-1.

Subcommittee meetings have ended and bills that have not yet been heard are unlikely to pass this session, unless they are amended onto other legislation. Stay tuned for upcoming Action Alerts as the bills progress or visit SCCF’s Legislative Tracker at www.sccf.org/our-work/environmental-policy.

Holly Schwartz is environmental policy assistant for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. Founded in 1967, the SCCF is dedicated to the conservation of coastal habitats and aquatic resources on Sanibel and Captiva and in the surrounding watershed. For more information, visit www.sccf.org.