We’re not sugarcoating it: The 2021 session of the Florida Legislature eroded environmental protections and failed to address the core of our state’s water-quality crisis: lack of enforceable pollution limits. The following is our analysis of the good, the bad and the ugly from the session that concluded April 30 in Tallahassee.
It was shaping up as just another spring in Tallahassee. Then the money rolled in.
With the federal American Rescue Plan funneling $10.2 billion into state coffers and state sales tax revenues rebounding, lawmakers had cash to spend. Billions went to conservation programs: $100 million for Florida Forever, $300 million for the Florida Wildlife Corridor, $500 million for septic-to-sewer conversions and $100 million to fund the cleanup at the Piney Point phosphate plant.
It was, said House Speaker Chris Sprowls (Palm Harbor), the “greenest budget in Florida history.”
We’re not so sure — particularly when the budget is considered against a backdrop of bad environmental legislation.
Big Sugar got what it wanted, as always. Lawmakers passed a measure indemnifying the industry from lawsuits related to the harmful effects of sugar cane burning. They also funded the construction of aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells north of Lake Okeechobee, which will benefit water users, including Big Sugar, which will get — at taxpayer expense — another source of water for irrigating sugarcane fields whenever they want it.
The powerful cruise ship industry prevailed in Key West, as legislators passed a law overturning a series of city referendums designed to keep the biggest ships out in order to protect the fragile Great Florida Reef.
Worthy legislative proposals died on the vine. Efforts to implement the recommendations of the state’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force were largely ignored. A proposal to ban oil drilling in the Everglades Protection Area — which we believed should have been expanded to include Big Cypress National Preserve — petered out.
And two bills that would have completely repealed the controversial “M-CORES” (Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance) road-building program didn’t even get hearings, though a partial repeal did pass.
Alarmingly, the Legislature failed to adequately address Florida’s looming toxic-algae crisis. The blue-green algae bloom on Lake Okeechobee has grown to 300 square miles, and it’s only a matter of time before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discharges putrid water east to the St. Lucie and ramps up discharges to the Caloosahatchee, sparking another environmental catastrophe.
The Florida Legislature — and Gov. Ron DeSantis — could have done more to address the core problems that got us here, the iniquities that perpetuate these crises.
But it was just another spring in Tallahassee.
Maybe one day our lawmakers will realize there’s a direct correlation between “just another spring” — and our lost summers.
SB 100: M-CORES repeal
One “road to ruin” was scuttled. But two more remain.
Senate Bill 100 was touted as a “repeal” of the controversial M-CORES (Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance) legislation pushed through by former Senate President Bill Galvano in 2019. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Gayle Harrell (Stuart) nixed a proposed toll road from Collier County to Polk County.
But the Florida Department of Transportation still plans to extend the Florida Turnpike west from Wildwood to the Suncoast Parkway. And plans to extend the Suncoast Parkway north were merely modified; the parkway will utilize the existing U.S. 19 corridor to Madison County, instead of Jefferson County.
Friends of the Everglades preferred a pair of bills (SB 1030 and HB 763) that would have eliminated all the M-CORES roads in their entirety, but both stalled in committee while SB 100, a priority of Senate President Wilton Simpson, sailed through.
An amendment sponsored by Sen. Randolph Bracey (Ocoee) improved the measure by requiring the state to consider task force reports that recommended protections for the environment, farmlands and minority communities. But there’s nothing mandating the state actually follow the recommendations.
Sen.Gayle Harrell — SB 100 sponsor; she argued the budgetary impacts of COVID-19 made it necessary to scale back the program.
Sen. Tina Polsky (Boca Raton) — Sponsored SB 1030, which would have repealed M-CORES in its entirety
Rep. Ben Diamond (St. Petersburg) — Sponsored HB 763, total M-CORES repeal bill.
SB 88/HB 1601 — Farming Protection
On April 29, Gov. DeSantis presented a massive gift to Big Sugar.
With a flourish he signed Senate Bill 88, a measure providing new legal protections to farmers. Proponents said the bill safeguards the “right to farm” and shields farmers from nuisance lawsuits.
But it also protects Big Sugar from legal action related to its harmful impacts, like the class-action suit filed by residents of the Glades communities who argue that sugarcane burning causes long-term health problems.
This bill, now law, means only those who live within a half a mile of an agricultural operation can bring a legal case against “nuisance” impacts like the smoke from the burning fields, which can travel upwards of 20 miles.
The old and young are particularly susceptible to respiratory problems caused by burning during the 6-8 month harvest season. Now, they’ll have little recourse.
Friends of the Everglades supporters sent more than 1,500 letters to DeSantis, asking him to veto the bill. But instead of siding with the people, he chose sugar.
Now the industry has both the right to farm — and the right to harm.
Sen. Jason Brodeur, (Lake Mary) — SB 88 sponsor; he argued noise, smoke, odors, dust, fumes, particle emissions or vibrations constitute mere “nuisances” and farmers must be protected from such “nuisance claims.”
Rep. Jayer Williamson, (Pace) — HB 1601 sponsor; said the distance requirement was necessary to make sure only those “directly affected by a farm” retained the right to sue.
Rep. Toby Overdorf, (Palm City) — Ran interference for the bill during its Environment, Agriculture & Flooding Subcommittee stop, repeatedly urging colleagues to back the bill.
Rep. Omari Hardy, (Lake Worth) — Attempted to thwart the bill at several stops, offering a series of rational amendments that would have extended the half-mile limit, removed “particle emissions” from the list of “nuisances” and more. All failed.
SB 426/HB 267 — Seaport Regulations
With just days left in session, one of the most pernicious bills this session (and that’s saying a lot) seemed dead.
House Bill 267 had sought to overturn a series of Key West referendums limiting the number of cruise ship passengers who come ashore to 1,500 daily, banning the largest ships outright and giving docking priority to those with the best health and safety records.
A companion bill had already passed the Senate 25-14, but HB 267 bogged down after questions about its constitutionality. At one point even its sponsor, Rep. Spencer Myers (North Fort Myers) declared it dead.
Then came the miraculous recovery.
Sen. Jim Boyd (Bradenton), who sponsored the original Senate bill, tacked the proposal onto a broader transportation bill, SB 1194, with just two days remaining in session. The transportation bill then passed the Senate 21-17 and the House 75-40 — and the will of Key West voters was overturned.
There are still likely to be questions about the legislation, as Boyd’s amendment broadened the scope to prohibit local voters from “restricting” maritime commerce at any of Florida’s 15 deep-water ports. Officials in those cities had fought hard to be exempted, and now they’re not.
Friends of the Everglades opposed the bill because we support home rule, but also because there were important environmental issues at stake. In the COVID-related absence of the big cruise ships, Key West residents noticed a big drop in the turbidity of local waters. And there have long been concerns that the huge cruise ships endanger the nearby “Great Florida Reef,” the only living barrier coral reef in North America.
Then there were reports that Mark Walsh, a billionaire hotel operator and owner of the Key West pier, which gets most of the city’s cruise ship traffic, gave just under $1 million to Gov. DeSantis’s political committee.
Sen. Jim Boyd — Sponsored both SB 426 and the amendment that tacked it onto the broader transportation bill; said the measure protects the “vulnerability of our state’s maritime commerce to the vagaries of local politics to the detriment of the state and our citizens.”
Rep. Jim Mooney (Islamorada) — A freshman legislator and the only Republican to stand against the proposal, Mooney said “It is my job to protect the ecosystem in the Florida Keys, and that’s what I am going to do.”
Rep. Spencer Roach (North Fort Myers) — sponsor of HB 267.
SB 2516 — Water storage north of Lake Okeechobee
Sen. Wilton Simpson — and Big Sugar — got what they wanted.
Florida is getting what it doesn’t need.
The final budget agreement between the House and Senate included a measure directing the South Florida Water Management District to partner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and expedite implementation of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP), which is part of CERP (the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan).
The plan: Take $50 million annually from the Land Acquisition Trust fund, and use it to build 80 aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells north of the lake.
The wells were a top priority for Simpson, who in December decried the “disproportionate amount of time and funding” spent on water projects south of Lake Okeechobee. Water storage north of the lake, he said, would give Florida “twice the bang for the buck.”
That might be true for sugarcane farmers looking for an irrigation source — but not for healthy waterways.
Significant questions remain about ASR wells. Many experts say they’re inefficient and won’t have enough capacity to make a real dent in the discharges. They’re more costly than advertised, and metals dissolved in the water while it’s underground, including arsenic, could wind up in Lake O.
Moreover, storing water north of the lake does nothing to move more water south into the parched Everglades and Florida Bay.
But the wells will provide a convenient, taxpayer-funded source of irrigation water for Big Sugar as it expands its growing operations north of the lake.
Indeed, campaign finance records show U.S. Sugar gave $100,000 to Simpson’s political committee, Jobs for Florida, the day before he publicly suggested the state halt work on the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir south of the lake. Though he subsequently backed off that threat, he maintained it’s better to build northern storage — echoing sentiments U.S. Sugar and other allied interests have voiced for years.
Sen. Wilton Simpson — In a Feb. 4 letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers he wrote that the aggressive timeline for southern storage and “funding priorities associated with it have unnecessarily pitted north against south and perpetuated the false narrative that a southern reservoir alone will solve the problem. I reject that narrative.”
SB 722/HB 333 — Everglades oil drilling
Both Senate Bill 722 and House Bill 333 died before reaching their respective chamber floors. The measures would have banned oil drilling in the legally defined Everglades Protection Area. Friends of the Everglades advocated extending the protections to Big Cypress National Preserve, right next door.
Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez (Doral) — Sponsor of SB 722
Rep. Vance Aloupis Jr. (Miami) — Sponsor of HB 333
SB 1522/HB 1225 — Blue-Green Algae Task Force recommendations
Appointed in the wake of the “lost summer” of 2018 that saw blue-green algae infest Florida’s east coast while red tide decimated the Gulf shores, the Blue-Green Algae Task Force appointed by Gov. DeSantis sought solutions. And some of the group’s recommendations were implemented in 2020 as part of the “Clean Waterways Act.”
But that legislation failed to adopt other key recommendations, and two bills this session sought to remedy that by requiring the state to implement stormwater system inspection and monitoring, require owners of onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems to have the system periodically inspected and require Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) to prioritize restoration projects that would have the biggest impact on water quality.
Senate Bill 1522 made it through two subcommittee stops before stalling out; House Bill 1225 never even got a hearing.
Sen. Linda Stewart (Orlando) — Sponsor of SB 1622
Rep. Joy Goff-Marcil (Maitland) — Sponsor of HB 1225
Florida Forever/ Florida Wildlife Corridor Act
To end on a somewhat positive note: The federal COVID-19 relief funds will help preserve wild Florida for decades to come.
Early on in the legislative session it appeared Florida Forever, one of the nation’s premiere land conservation programs, would be shortchanged once again. Since its inception in 2001, the state has purchased just under 870,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land for $3.2 billion.
But the Great Recession resulted in drastic reductions to funding. Last year the program got $91.7 million, a significant increase over the $34.5 million in 2019. But in his proposed 2021-22 budget, Gov. Ron DeSantis initially proposed spending $50 million.
The House and Senate ultimately brokered a deal to spend twice that, $100 million. Then, American Rescue Plan funding allowed lawmakers to pass the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, setting aside another $300 million to acquire land to preserve migration paths for animals like the Florida panther.
The act also seeks to protect the headwaters of major watersheds, including the Everglades; to help sustain working farms, lands and forests; and preserve lands and waters to protect coastal estuaries.
The wildlife corridor includes more than 18 million acres of land, 8 million of which is currently unprotected.