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Florida Senate Bill Would Set $100 mil Annual Florida Forever Funding Floor

                                                                                                               Photo: FunkWD

TALLAHASSEE, FL – The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Environment and General Government on Tuesday unanimously approved a proposal to mandate an annual allocation of $100 million for the Florida Forever program.

Senate Bill 332, sponsored by Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, has one hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee remaining before making it onto the Senate floor and, inevitably, into conflict with the House’s proposed fiscal year 2021 budget.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ budget request, and the Senate’s proposed budget, earmarks $125 million for Florida Forever, while the House’s tentative spending plan allocates $20 million for the program.

“The bill provides a stable, annual funding floor for Florida Forever, rather than subjecting this program to an annual legislative fight,” Stewart said.

The program received $33 million this year, although Florida Forever has been funded at as much as $300 million a year in the past.

SB 332 creates a statutory distribution from the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund (LATF) of $100 million annually to Florida Forever in accordance with the Florida Forever Act.

The state has acquired more than 2.4 million acres since 1991 under the original Preservation 2000 plan and its successor, Florida Forever, created with the 1999 adoption of the Florida Forever Act.

Florida Forever is funded by a 70-cents-per-$100-documentary-stamp excise tax levied on property deeds and a 35-cents-per-$100 excise tax on certificates of indebtedness, promissory notes, wage assignment and retail charge account agreements.

In 2014, 75 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 1, a constitutional amendment requiring 33 percent of documentary stamp excise tax revenues go to Florida Forever.

In January, the Revenue Estimating Conference projected the state would collect $2.87 billion in documentary stamp tax revenues. One third – $945.12 million – must be deposited to Florida Forever, where $157.69 million is committed to debt service, leaving $787.43 million to be distributed.

Of that estimated $787.43 million, at least $625 million likely will be dedicated to DeSantis’ proposed four-year, $2.5 billion Everglades restoration initiative. The governor asked for $625 million in this year’s budget, and lawmakers approved more the $680 million.

DeSantis’ fiscal 2021 budget request also is for $625 million and both chambers’ proposed spending plans include the allocation.

Whatever amount of the remaining $162.5 million left “unallocated” can be “swept” into other priorities under the state’s General Appropriations Act.

Under the House plan, more than $140 million could go elsewhere. DeSantis and the Senate want to leave less than $50 million vulnerable to sweeps.

The Legislature has been battling in court since 2015 to defend its “rightful discretion” to sweep Florida Forever funds.

In September, a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeals overturned Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson’s June 2018 ruling that found lawmakers “defied” Amendment 1 in diverting Florida Forever money to bolster general fund revenues. Appeals have been filed, but no court dates set.

1000 Friends of Florida President Paul Owens joined a chorus of supporters Tuesday encouraging the Senate to “stay strong” in resisting the House’s “sweep impulse.”

“At the current rate of state investment, it would take 370 years to acquire the conservation land identified in plans developed by the state and water management districts,” Owens said. “Protecting the conservation land will protect our water supply, our environment, our quality of life and our economy, which depends upon the other three assets.”

Florida Forever is administered by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which is required to distribute Florida Forever revenues by a formula established in state statute with the DEP’s Division of State Lands (35 percent), the state’s five water management districts (30) and the Florida Communities Trust (21) being the primary recipients.

This piece appeared in the The Center Square and was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

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