Legislators in the Florida House and Senate are beginning to file funding requests and proposed policy changes as a 60-day session in Tallahassee starts March 7. Committees are gathering to consider bills, including one proposal recently filed by Rep. Jim Mooney and state Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez to obtain millions in annual funding for a key Florida Keys program.
Legislation sponsored by Mooney and Rodriguez, House Bill 135 and Senate Bill 54, requests $20 million annually for the Florida Keys Stewardship Act that funds nearshore water projects and acquisition of environmentally-sensitive land. Funds would be issued to the state Department of Environmental Protection, and then sent to local municipalities to use for projects including stormwater and canal restoration.
The Senate’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee passed the bill on Jan. 17 via a 9-0 vote. Rodriguez, who serves as committee chair, said the bill’s passage through the first committee is “groundbreaking.” But Rodriguez said the bill has a long road to become law.
“As the bill sponsor, I could not be happier and I will continue to work tirelessly to get this legislation over the finish line,” she said.
Stewardship Act funding fluctuated year-to-year going back to its passage in 2016. Legislators representing the Keys, going back to former state Rep. Holly Raschein and former state Sen. Anitere Flores, fought each session to secure as much money as possible in the budget.
In the first year, $5 million was allocated for water projects and land acquisition. A year later, the legislature approved $13.3 million. Stewardship Act funds totaled $10 million in 2018 and $11 million in 2019.
Financial losses from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 resulted in Gov. Ron DeSantis cutting $1 billion for programs, including $10 million from the Stewardship Act. By 2021, full funding was granted for the program, with $20 million for water quality projects and $5 million for land acquisition.
“The main goal is just get it out of the begging mode every year,” Mooney said regarding the latest proposal.
Full funding for the Stewardship Act sits atop the legislative priorities for Monroe County in the upcoming session. Funds awarded to Keys municipalities can’t be used for wastewater projects, according to the proposal. Legislation was referred to the House and Senate’s Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations committees.
The bill would need to pass through the House and Senate before the governor considers signing it into law.