It is encouraging to see a Florida House that has been notoriously unfriendly to environmental concerns in recent years work to transform a polluter-friendly Everglades bill into a reasonable cleanup plan.
Speaker Will Weatherford and his team deserve credit for working with environmentalists.
Originally, House Bill 7065, which was aimed at codifying the $880 million Everglades cleanup settlement reached by Gov. Rick Scott and Washington, included several slippery measures aimed at benefiting the influential sugar industry.
The initial proposal would have limited the industry’s financial responsibility to far below the actual costs of cleaning up the mess it created. That would have directly contradicted a 1996 “polluters pay” constitutional amendment that passed with nearly 70 percent of the vote.
The initial legislation would have extended a $25-per-acre special cleanup tax on agriculture until 2024, when it would drop to $10 an acre and then essentially cap the sugar industry’s liability.
This would have left taxpayers on the hook for the overwhelming bulk of the costs of building the water storage and treatment systems needed to restore a measure of health to the badly abused Everglades.
The bill also would have dictated that operations with permits must be found in compliance with water quality standards, regardless of how harmful their discharges, providing the polluters a free pass.
At first it appeared House leadership would force the legislation through. It passed a committee with only one legislator daring to oppose it.
But environmentalists fought hard, and the House leaders, rather than simply dismissing their objections, approved thoughtful changes.
Wednesday, the House amended the bill to extend the $25 tax to 2026, when it would be set at $20 per acre until 2029. Then it would be reduced to $15 until 2035, when it would finally drop to $10 per acre.
Holding the sugar industry more accountable will add more than $100 million to the cleanup effort.
Equally important, the House dropped the language giving permit-holders a pass for any polluted discharges.
Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, says the legislation changed from being a environmental threat to “a reliable funding source for the Everglades cleanup.”
The Senate bill to codify the Everglades agreement, sponsored by Pasco Sen. Wilton Simpson, has never included any special interest machinations, so the odds look good that this Legislature will have at least one notable environmental achievement.
Considering the disregard for natural Florida exhibited by the last few Legislatures, that is good news indeed.