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Everglades bill passes first test

The measure clears a Senate panel, though lawmakers dispute how much South Florida should pay.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2000


A bill ensuring the state will help pay for restoring the Everglades passed its first committee hurdle in the Legislature on Monday, but not without a wrangle over how much of the $7.8-billion price tag should be paid by South Florida's residents.

Debate on the bill also touched on a bubbling controversy over whether the Everglades' natural system will be first in line to get the water from the new project, or whether it will have to compete with sugar farmers, golf courses and other users.

In unveiling his Everglades funding plan earlier this year, Gov. Jeb Bush said the federal government will pay half the cost of the restoration project, while the rest will be split evenly between the state and local governments. He told local governments to pay their share without raising property taxes.

But South Florida officials have objected that they cannot come up with that much money -- $100-million a year -- so easily. The South Florida Water Management District has already slashed $48-million from its budget, cutting programs involving water conservation and flood control. But to meet the governor's requirement, the water board must come up with another $52-million.

"I just don't know where we come up with the rest of this money," water board member Mitchell Berger said Monday.

So when the Senate Natural Resources Committee took up the Everglades project Monday, a pair of South Florida senators -- Burt Saunders, R-Naples, and Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami -- attempted to delete the requirement that the water board pay half the state's share of $200-million a year.

Sen. Howard Forman, a Democrat from Broward County, tried to persuade the committee to increase the state's contribution so that the water district would not have to find any more money. After all, he said, the Everglades is not merely a local treasure but one of international renown.

The committee rejected those changes. Senate Majority Leader Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, pointed out that the Everglades restoration plan will improve South Florida's sewer and water systems so those residents should pay a fair share of the cost.

Sen. John Laurent, R-Bartow, contended that if the Legislature does not spell out what the water district will pay, then every year there will be new fights and the winner "will depend on who has the oomph and who does not have the oomph."

Right now, the "oomph" belongs to the governor, said his top Everglades adviser.

"The governor is committed to a 50-50 split, and we have the line-item veto over the budget and a majority of the appointees to the (water) board," Allison DeFoor said. "There is no way they're going to be going in any direction except the one the governor said."

The restoration plan seeks to undo the damage the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did 50 years ago with a massive flood-control project that shunts more than 1-billion gallons of water a day into the sea. The complex web of canals, levees and pumps has left the River of Grass a shadow of its former beauty.

The plan, which is slated for a vote by Congress this summer, calls for ripping out some canals and levees, raising 20 miles of the Tamiami Trail so the River of Grass can flow beneath it unimpeded, creating thousands of acres of manmade swamps and storing water in 300 deep wells and a pair of limestone quarries.

The result is supposed to be a plumbing system allowing what is left of the Everglades to function more naturally while providing enough drinking water for South Florida's population to double.

During Monday's meeting, the committee did approve an amendment proposed by Diaz-Balart that says state law will determine how water would be allocated, so all parties get equal access. Saunders said that would prevent federal officials from dictating where the water would be sent, which DeFoor said would "raise the comfort level" for some people.

Officials from the sugar industry and the Miccosukee tribe of Indians have complained about an Army Corps of Engineers letter that appears to give precedence to the Everglades in getting water produced by the restoration project.

But Republican leaders in Congress have pushed to put the Everglades first in line, because they do not want the massive project to become just an excuse to spend federal money supplying more water to fuel South Florida's growth.

"Maybe Gov. Bush can introduce the Republicans in the state Legislature to the Republicans in Congress," Berger, a Democrat, said.

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