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Florida Senate Changes Target Troubled Reservoir, Housing

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SENATE MAJORITY OFFICE
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Newly elected members of the Florida Senate take the oath of office in the Senate chamber on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020, at the Capitol in Tallahassee. New Miami-Dade Senator Ileana Garcia is at the far left.

TALLAHASSEE --- The Florida Senate on Wednesday backed starting to pay for critical repairs of a reservoir at a troubled former phosphate plant in Manatee County and bumped up proposed spending on affordable housing.

The Senate made the decisions as it approved an initial $95 billion budget plan for the fiscal year that will start July 1. But the plan is considered only a starting point for negotiations with the House, which has offered a $97 billion proposal.

Heading into those negotiations, lawmakers received positive news Tuesday that they will have about $2 billion more than previously forecast in state general revenues. Also, negotiations will involve how to use about $10 billion in anticipated federal stimulus money --- something not included in the Senate’s initial plan.

Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said the Senate plan (SB 2500) is a “worst-case scenario” that would maintain public-school student funding levels and increase the state employee minimum wage to $13 an hour.

“We looked everywhere we could at where we could do efficiencies, look for redundancies, look for every dime we could squeeze out of a penny, everything that we could do to try to make sure that we had a responsible budget,” Stargel said. “I hope that as we move forward into the conference that we've set ourselves in a position that we can really come out with the best outcomes for the state of Florida.”

Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said more attention needs to be given to health care.

“I'm going to harp on it until we finish the budget, $10 billion can be helpful to those individuals who need just a little more help in the health arena,” Gibson said.

Among 18 changes made Wednesday, the Senate included a new $3 million line item by Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, to start cleaning up the former phosphate plant at Piney Point in Manatee County.

Wastewater on the site is contaminated, and a leak in a reservoir in recent days led to an evacuation of residents and a state of emergency amid fears that a breach could lead a wall to collapse.

Boyd said the goal is to initially reduce the water and then begin a long-term restoration of the property.

Sen. Janet Cruz, in supporting the funding, said the state is “essentially stuck” taking care of the private property.

“Not our problem, but we’re going to fix it and take care of our residents,” Cruz, D-Tampa, said.

A Senate news release on Monday said a full cleanup and restoration is anticipated to cost "upwards of $200 million" and that money from the federal stimulus package could be used to address it.

“This nutrient laden water spilling out near Piney Point has serious implications to the fragile environment that represents Tampa Bay,” said Sen. Daryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. “The funds that we are appropriating will start us on a pathway to cleaning up what has been recognized as a true mess.”

Among other changes Wednesday, the Senate revised a budget-linked bill (SB 2512) that would divvy up a portion of documentary-stamp taxes that are currently targeted for affordable housing.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, last month announced a proposal that focused on what is known as the Sadowski Trust Fund, which has long been used to finance affordable-housing programs.

Sprowls and Simpson proposed that two-thirds of the Sadowski money go to efforts to address effects of sea-level rise and to upgrade sewage treatment. Under the initial Senate plan, that would have provided $141.7 million to affordable housing, sea-level rise and sewage treatment.

But after an outcry about a need for affordable housing, the Senate approved an amendment Wednesday to provide $200 million for affordable housing, $111.7 million for sea-level rise and $111.7 million for sewage treatment, according to numbers provided by Senate Agriculture, Environment and General Government Appropriations Chairman Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula.

The trust fund has been an annual target of lawmakers who divert --- or “sweep” --- affordable-housing money to help pay for other programs. Albritton said the legislation will prohibit sweeping money from the trust fund in the future.

A separate budget-related bill (SB 2516) approved Wednesday by the Senate would allocate $50 million a year to the South Florida Water Management District for water storage north of Lake Okeechobee. Such water storage is a priority of Simpson.

“Collaborative efforts between the state and federal government successfully expedited the beginning phases of construction of the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee,” Simpson said in a statement. “Now it is time to build on this momentum by focusing on projects north of the lake.”