Florida Legislature Reaches Turning Point on Water Policy

Florida Legislature Reaches Turning Point on Water Policy
By: Peter M. Dunbar


The optimism at the beginning of this year’s legislative deliberations that there would be major initiatives to modernize Florida’s statewide water policies and implement the provisions of Amendment One faded in the final days of the Regular Session under the weight of the impasse over spending priorities in the state budget. Two primary bills – HB 7003 and SB 918 – were the most ambitious attempts to redraw the state’s water state policies since 1974. However, disagreement between the House and the Senate over key provisions in the bills and the budget controversy left the work incomplete at the premature adjournment of the 2015 Regular Session. Neither version of the legislation passed.

During the Special Session that passed this year’s budget in mid-June, the Legislature did approve some water-related legislation modifying the land and water conservation trust funds to accommodate the technical changes needed for the initial funding for Amendment One. Based on these changes, the final budget bill did include some specific funding for projects and priorities contemplated by the primary water bills, but the permanent changes contained in HB 7003 and SB 918 were not debated further during the Special Session and will carry over for consideration in 2016.

As a former legislator – I served five terms as a member of the House – I understand and appreciate that major legislation often takes time, and that significant change in policy doesn’t always happen in a single legislative session. In that context, the work to modernize Florida’s water policy in 2015 was not wasted, and it becomes the foundation for renewed efforts to complete the task. We can expect the debate and deliberations to continue during the Legislature’s interim committee work that begins in September for the 2016 Regular Session, and the “starting points” will most certainly be the final versions of the legislation found in HB 7003 and SB 918.

One of the primary points of disagreement to be resolved between the House and the Senate appears to be the Senate proposal to create an advisory council to rank and select the proposed projects to be funded prospectively under the provisions of Amendment One. The House position, in contrast, preserves the funding and selection of Amendment One projects as an exclusive legislative prerogative.

The debate in the Legislature has a geographical component, as well, and some believe the priority for funding should be focused on the Everglades in the southern part of Florida, while other legislators believe the priority should focus on funding for improved water quality in the springs and water bodies found in central and northern parts of the state. It is around these two points of disagreement – (1) how annual funding priorities will be decided, and (2) where the geographical priorities will focus – that the compromises need to be found in 2016.

While the optimism that was present when the 2015 Session began did not ultimately bring about the ambitious changes to Florida law contemplated by either the House or the Senate, there is reason for continued optimism as the 2016 approaches. Based on my experience, the 2016 Session will finish the work that began earlier this year.

About the Author:
Peter M. Dunbar is a shareholder at Dean Mead, where his practice focuses on governmental, administrative, and real property law. He began his long career in Florida government in 1967 as staff director in the Florida House of Representatives. Dunbar later served for five terms as a distinguished member of the Florida House, representing Pinellas and Pasco counties in the Florida Legislature. Upon leaving the Legislature, he held the posts of general counsel and director of legislative affairs under Gov. Bob Martinez and general counsel at the Department of Financial Services. Dunbar served as chief of staff during the transition from the Martinez administration to the administration of Gov. Lawton Chiles, and he is former chairman and two-term member of the Florida Ethics Commission. He may be reached at (850) 999-4100 or by email at pdunbar@www.deanmead.com.