BRADENTON, Fla. - Two Florida lawmakers have filed bills that would require water management districts to get voter approval through referendums before selling certificates of participation.
The bills will be considered during the Legislature's annual 60-day session, which starts Tuesday, March 3, and if passed could impact the South Florida Water Management District's ability to sell up to $2.2 billion of COPs for Everglades restoration and capital needs.
The SFWMD, which covers 16 counties in central and south Florida, plans to sell $1.34 billion of COPs later this year to buy U.S. Sugar Corp.'s 180,000 acres of sugar cane fields and citrus groves - a financing for Everglades restoration that faces legal challenges as well as opposition in the Legislature.
There are five water management districts covering Florida's 67 counties. Their boards, which range from nine to 11 members, are appointed by the governor and subject to confirmation by the Senate. By state law, the districts can levy property taxes and issue debt, including COPs.
Bills that would prohibit water management districts from issuing COPs unless approved by voters of the district have been filed by Sen. Michael Bennett, R-Bradenton, and Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers.
Bennett said he is concerned that the SFWMD's plans could be replicated by other water management districts, and even other governmental organizations with taxing authority whose members are appointed.
"People have a right to expect that the people spending the money are elected, and in this case, the people are appointed," Bennett, who is chairman of the Senate Community Affairs Committee, said on Friday. "That's what I call taxation without representation."
The SFWMD's plan to sell $1.34 billion of COPs for the U.S. Sugar purchase is what brought his attention to the issue.
But it is not the first time the SFWMD has used the financing mechanism. Former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush made statewide headline news when he unveiled the first plan by the district to use COP financing for a different environmental restoration program.
The SFWMD validated $1.8 billion of COPs in March 2006, and sold $546 million of the debt in October 2006.
"If I had been aware of that, I would have been opposed to it," said Bennett, who has been a senator since 2002. "I'm hoping my legislation can cover any future [COP issuances]. I don't know if there's anything that we can do retroactively."
However, Bennett noted that there has not yet been a court ruling validating the SFWMD's $2.2 billion of COPs to finance the U.S. Sugar purchase.
And resolution of that case could take months.
Four challengers have filed petitions opposing the validation and a three-day hearing is scheduled to start March 16. Attorneys expect the validation case to eventually be heard by the Florida Supreme Court.
If the Legislature passes the COP referendum bill, it still must be signed into law by Gov. Charlie Crist, who spearheaded the current effort to purchase the U.S. Sugar land using COP financing.
"I don't think the governor wants to veto a bill that would give people a right to vote on an issue," Bennett said, although he acknowledged Crist's support for the project.
When asked for a comment about the COP bill, SFWMD spokesman Gabe Margasak released a statement that said: "The South Florida Water Management District is respectful of the legislative process and continues to work closely with the Florida House and Senate."