Florida lawmakers completed work Thursday on a new plan to help pay for Everglades restoration, drawing praise from environmental activists and the sugar industry after years of squabbling over ways to protect the famed River of Grass.
On the next-to-last day of the legislative session, the Senate voted 39-0 to send the measure (HB 7065) to Gov. Rick Scott. The bill won unanimous approval from the House earlier in the 60-day session.
"We're very proud of this legislation," said Sen. Wilton Simpson, the lead Senate proponent who referred to the Everglades as "the Eighth Wonder of the World."
The legislation would keep intact an existing tax on farmers in the northern Everglades until the mid-2030s, although it calls for the tax rate to decrease starting in the mid-2020s.
The money from the tax will be used for water quality restoration projects that are part of an $880 million plan that was negotiated between Scott and the federal government.
The bill also calls for spending $32 million a year for the next 10 years in an effort to reduce the amount of phosphorus that enters the Everglades.
Lawmakers pushing the bill touted it as a peace treaty in a dispute over an ecologically fragile area that has been fought over for the past two decades.
Sugar interests and environmental activists on Thursday were quick to praise the final product headed to the governor's desk.
"Sugar farmers are proud to have worked closely with environmental groups and policy makers to help craft a bill that will conclude decades of drawn out litigation that have been a barrier to restoration," said Gaston Cantens, vice president of Florida Crystals Corp. "This bill is a pact that will put into statute the consensus between all groups, which means we can now move forward together with certainty to build the final projects for Everglades restoration."
Robert Coker, senior vice president of U.S. Sugar Corp., called the bill a "true compromise" and said he hopes it leads to a "lasting collaboration."
"''We've been working on these issues for more than 20 years and remain committed to striking the balance that allows farmers to grow food, contribute to a strong economy and also continue to serve as partners in the state's restoration plans," he said in a statement.
The sugar industry praised the bill's language allowing sugar farmers to continue using "best management practices," paid for by the farmers. The industry said those practices have significantly reduced phosphorus-related pollution.
The Everglades Foundation also hailed the bill's final passage.
Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said the bill was "good public policy" that would provide "reliable funding" for restoration efforts. He said it protects language that has guided Florida's restoration efforts for two decades.