Florida’s waters will bear the scars of this legislative session

The Florida Senate during the 2023 legislative session on April 19, 2023, in Tallahassee.

And so the 2023 Legislative Session has come to an end. Mercifully.

Let’s be frank: It wasn’t a good year for clean water or Florida’s environment in general. While the Legislature did allot a record $1.1 billion for land acquisition — most of it, $850 million, earmarked for the Florida Wildlife Corridor — legislators also passed a bevy of “pro-sprawl” bills, and snuck a few doozies through in the waning days.

We told you last week about the provision slipped into the budget “implementing bill” to prohibit counties and municipalities from adopting new fertilizer ordinances — or amending existing ones — tougher than the state’s model ordinance. This ban would last one year while the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) conducts a study to determine the next steps. We fear the next step will be a legislative proposal next time around to weaken fertilizer ordinances permanently, which is why VoteWater supports the campaign asking Gov. DeSantis to veto the funding for the study.

This wasn’t the only “sneak attack” this session. Senate Bill 718 started out as a bill about municipal annexation; but when a proposal to prohibit citizens from challenging local land development regulations (HB 41/SB 856) faltered, a “committee substitute” bill for SB 718 changed the original to incorporate the referendum ban. The switcheroo caught many in the conservation community by surprise — in part because the Senate analysis of the bill failed to mention this key change — and it passed both the House and Senate.

Then there’s the granddaddy of them all, House Bill 540, which would force citizens who lose a challenge to a local comprehensive plan amendment to pay legal fees incurred by the “prevailing parties” — which could be in the six figures. Numerous conservation groups including our partners at Friends of the Everglades are asking Gov. DeSantis for a veto; if signed into law, this is the death knell for “smart growth” in Florida, meaning more sprawl, more traffic, more water quality challenges, and more problems — period.

We could go on, but you get the gist. As we first noted back in February, this was a “Session of Sprawl.” But it was more than that — it was a demonstration of how special interests continue to rule the roost in Tallahassee, and the need to change that equation if we’re ever going to stop the assault on clean water in Florida.

Just who was clamoring for HB 540 to be passed? “The people?” Hardly. This is a bill benefitting developers who wish to dispense with those pesky citizens who gum up with the works with their legal challenges. This was a bill benefiting those who seek to pave over as much of natural Florida as possible; now it will be easier to do so.

Likewise, what sane Floridian thinks the answer to an overload of nutrients in our waterways is… more nutrients? But what, pray tell, do we think the IFAS study of fertilizer bans is going to show? As stated in the veto letter to Gov. DeSantis, “rainy season urban fertilizer management has been a non-partisan, common sense, science-based approach to protecting Florida’s environment and economy since 2007. … No one, including UF/IFAS, which spent millions of state (FDEP) dollars studying the same between 2005-2011, has ever determined that avoiding fertilizer application before Florida’s heavy summer downpours is anything but the cheapest, easiest, and best way to stop urban stormwater pollution at its source.”

But, well, this cuts into fertilizer industry profits. And apparently we can’t have that — even if the cost is even more pollution in our already struggling waterways.

Florida’s waters will bear the scars of this legislative session. And that will continue so long as we have legislators willing — eager! — to vote for industry profits over clean water, to vote for sprawl over sensible growth, to vote for special interests over local citizens.

Until this changes — nothing else will.