BRADENTON, Fla. - The Florida Senate has passed a bill that would authorize the state's largest borrowing program in 15 years.

The upper chamber voted 36-3 last week for Senate Bill 10, the reservoir project championed by Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, designed to prevent pollution from the state’s largest freshwater lake from reaching south Florida’s east and west coasts.

“For too long toxic blue-green algae has been harming the health of both our citizens and our economy,” Negron said in a statement. “This legislation provides a clear plan to address this plague in a manner that benefits communities across South Florida.”

The Florida Senate passed a $1.2 billion bond bill financing a reservoir to prevent algae blooms like this one last summer, but the legislation faces an uphill battle in the House.
The Florida Senate passed a $1.2 billion bond bill financing a reservoir to prevent algae blooms like this one last summer, but the legislation faces an uphill battle in the House. Martin County Board of County Commissioners

The measure faces a stiff uphill battle in the House as well as with Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran have both been resistant to allowing new bond debt.

On Monday, Scott held a press conference to say that he supports portions of Negron’s bill, but not if it means “taking on more debt.”

Scott also said he would ask the Legislature for $200 million to help the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers complete repairs to the Lake Okeechobee dike. The Corps manages the dike as part of an agreement with Florida.

Negron’s proposal, initially estimated at $2.4 billion, has been reduced in cost and scope as part of negotiations to mollify opponents.

As passed by the Senate, the plan would cost $1.2 billion and includes an option to finance the project with bonds under the state’s Florida Forever borrowing program.

The financing would be done using 20-year bonds secured by collections from a documentary stamp tax on real estate transactions, which have surged since the end of the 2008 recession.

Ben Watkins, director of the Division of Bond Finance, has said that documentary stamp tax revenue could support the reservoir financing program.

Bond proceeds would be used to construct a 240,000-acre reservoir to capture and filter bacteria-laden water from Lake Okeechobee that is released when water polluted by runoff such as fertilizer threatens to breach the lake’s aged earthen dike.

When that has occurred over the years, and water is released to reduce pressure on the dike, it travels southeast and southwest and causes severe algae blooms that choke marine life and threaten human health.

Last year, during severe algae blooms, Scott issued a series of executive orders ordering state emergency managers to develop response and mitigation plans for outbreaks that affected Lee, Martin and St. Lucie counties.

Bill sponsor Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said the algae blooms will continue unless high volume discharges from Lake Okeechobee are stopped.

“They bring real health risks to humans and wildlife and result in severe economic damage to local businesses,” he said.

The reservoir development program would be spearheaded by the South Florida Water Management District.

In addition to reducing the overall cost to $1.2 billion, SB 10 requires the district to consider using state-owned land as well as land swaps as the site of the reservoir.

If additional land is needed, the district would be required to buy privately owned property outright or negotiate a land swap. The use of eminent domain would be prohibited.

The bill would also terminate a program that allows inmates to be used for work on state-owned land, in order to hire local workers in a region with high unemployment.

SB 10 has been sent to the House for consideration.

Only three weeks remain before the end of the session.

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