March 31, 2017
Lake Okeechobee reservoir stalled in the House, but don't count defeat yet
By Isadora Rangel
TALLAHASSEE — A plan to build a reservoir to curb Lake Okeechobee discharges has stalled in the Florida House, and supporters might have to wait until the 11th hour to find out whether Senate President Joe Negron can pull it off.
It's not surprising the House hasn't given the bill a single hearing as the 60-day session ending May 5 reaches its halfway point.
This is Negron's top priority — one he's vowed to fight for his Treasure Coast constituents. So it's beneficial for Speaker Richard Corcoran to hold it hostage until the Senate supports some of his priorities, such as K-12 funding, cutting business incentives, charter school expansion and judicial term limits.
Negron acknowledged from the start his plan would face a lot of opposition on its key points:
• Borrowing $1.2 billion, which Corcoran opposes
• Convincing Congress to pony up the same amount, a task some Florida Congress members don't want to undertake
• Buying as much as 60,000 acres south of the lake, which farmers are reluctant to sell
• Forcing U.S. Sugar Corp., if there aren't enough willing sellers, to sell its land as agreed in a 2010 contract.
CAPITAL TEAM: Complete session coverage
U.S. Sen. Rubio Marco threw cold water on Negron's aspirations last week when he said there's no federal money for the project.
So the questions become: What is Negron willing to trade Corcoran in exchange for the reservoir? How badly does Corcoran want his priorities? Will Negron play hard ball and risk a budget showdown?
"It’s not surprising that the House is holding back on moving forward where the Senate has set its priorities," said Sen. Rob Bradley, the Fleming Island Republican who sponsored the bill for Negron's reservoir. "In the same manner, you don’t see some of the House priorities on the fast track in the Senate right now."
Corcoran hasn't hinted at whether he will budge.
He said Thursday he's waiting for the Senate to pass its bill and send it to the House. But his leadership team this week said there's little appetite for building a reservoir south of the lake when the state and federal governments are planning one north of the lake. Negron has said a northern reservoir will store water only temporarily before the rainy season forces it into the lake and out the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
"We are very open to hearing what the Senate has to offer," House budget Chairman Carlos Trujillo said Wednesday. "But we are not very willing to just start changing all these moving parts on a whim."
Bradley said he will amend Senate Bill 10 before its last committee stop Wednesday, after which the bill is expected to go up for full Senate vote. There are talks about considering using some land the state already owns so it can take less than 60,000 acres of farmland out of production, said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon.
Lee, a former Senate president, said the fact the House hasn't heard the bill as lawmakers end the fourth of nine weeks in session should be a concern. Yet the proposal could come up during budget negotiations between the chambers, or Corcoran could bring it up for a House floor vote as late as he wants before May 5. Or Negron might have to try again next year, when he serves the second half of his presidency, Lee said.
"You have a speaker who, I think, has demonstrated, at least working with me, that he's willing to walk away," Lee said. "And that’s always a very powerful position to have in a negotiation."
Negron supporters said they expect the land buy to be one of the last issues resolved before session ends, as is common with the priorities of presidents and speakers. That happened last year when a bill to carve out Everglades restoration funding was the last one the Legislature passed. It was sponsored by Negron, then the incoming Senate president.
"With it only being the (fourth) week of session, there are still many options available," Negron spokeswoman Katie Betta said via email. "President Negron views it as his responsibility to continue to make the case for southern storage here in the Senate and in the House."
The other side:Lake O reservoir stokes fear in the Glades
Negron still has to get his own chamber behind his proposal. Some senators have expressed concerns about what effect taking 60,000 acres out of production could have on agricultural jobs.
Bradley tried to garner more support for the reservoir bill earlier this month by adding provisions to help displaced workers, fund other restoration projects and pay for septic-to-sewer conversions and a loan program for water storage with a focus on water supply.
Those changes fractured support among environmental groups. Florida Conservation Voters and 1,000 Friends of Florida denounced the bill for using money available through Amendment 1, which voters approved in 2014 for land and water conservation, to pay for those water infrastructure projects. The groups have pushed for the pot of money available through the measure — made up of one-third of real estate transaction tax revenue — to buy more natural and agricultural lands before they get developed.
Negron still has support from most groups, which see the changes as necessary to get the bill passed. Negron also has to contend with lawmakers from other parts of the state who don't want money diverted from their region and bypass the sugar industry's lobbying against him.
"Everywhere you turn there’s a roadblock on the subject," Lee said.