FILE - Lake Okeechobee Florida

Lake Okeechobee in Florida

If the Legislature sustains funding for Gov. Ron DeSantis’s $2.5 billion water-quality improvement plan, its four consecutive years of $625 million annual infusions will “transform Florida,” state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Noah Valenstein predicts.

“We’ve got Everglades restoration on steroids now,” Valenstein told the Senate Appropriations Committee late last week. “You’re looking in the next three to four years to see transformational change.”

Valenstein said under DeSantis’s plan, the state could complete its component of its Everglades restoration plan with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2023 – two years early.

The DEP is spearheading DeSantis’s $625 million fiscal 2021 funding request, the second installment of four $625 million annual funding requests as part of the $2.5 billion water-quality/Everglades restoration campaign the governor outlined upon assuming office.

During this year’s negotiations, the DEP requested $625 million for the program’s first year and lawmakers approved $682 million.

“This Legislature, this Senate, took that request, which was the highest ever requested, and responded with not just a yes and ‘Yes, we believe it’s necessary to invest in protecting our environment,’ but actually almost a one-up,” Valenstein told senators.

Like this year’s $625 million request, he said, next year’s $625 million request will pay for Everglades restoration, water projects, natural springs conservation, alternative water supplies, “transparency and accountability.”

As part of that “transparency and accountability,” DeSantis on Nov. 5 unveiled a new state website – www.ProtectingFloridaTogether.gov – that provides public “snapshots of water quality in the state’s major lakes and waterways.”

The website provides information on blue-green algae and red tide blooms, updated data on projects and monitors the water quality status of Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. Monitoring will be expanded statewide, according to the DEP.

“It’s a water-quality dashboard, a one-stop shop for water quality information,” DeSantis said. “If there are discharges and there’s algae, what does that mean for the environment? What does it mean for health? We didn’t have really a good way to share that with the public.”

Valenstein told senators that DeSantis’s support for higher environmental funding is “a paradigm shift” from the preceding eight years under the administration Rick Scott.

“We’ve come a long way,” he said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, said DeSantis’s unabashed support for environmental spending has buoyed fellow GOP senators who’ve stewed in frustrated silence over “budget sweep” diversions of money earmarked for specific programs into the general funds.

“After a while, you almost get cynical about this (environmental spending) ever going to happen,” Bradley said. “But I’m seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, that’s a real light for the first time in my career here in the Senate, so that makes me happy.”

The Legislature, however, continues to exert what it claims to be its rightful discretion to use funding from the 2014 Florida Water & Land Conservation Initiative, approved as Amendment 1 by 75 percent of voters, for other budget priorities.

In September, a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal overturned Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson’s June 2018 ruling that found lawmakers “defied” Amendment 1 in diverting money intended for land acquisition in budget “sweeps” to bolster general fund revenues.

Under Amendment 1, 33 percent of revenues from a state tax on real-estate documentary stamps are dedicated to the "Forever Florida" Land Acquisition Trust Fund. That trust fund could top more than $900 million this fiscal year.

In this year’s budget, the House’s proposed just $8 million for Forever Florida while the Senate anted up $100 million, which was ultimately approved.

DeSants has called for an end to “budget sweeps.” In May, he used a line-item veto to reject the Legislature’s FY20 plan to sweep $125 million from the William E. Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

The Governor did not, however, veto the sweep of the Forever Florida Land Acquisition Trust Fund.

“One of the things that has frustrated senators over the years is that we have these initiatives and we want to make sure there’s follow-through,” Bradley said. “And we have an important role to play in oversight of our executive branch.”