- Associated Press - Sunday, June 14, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida legislators finally reached a deal late Sunday on how much money should be spent conserving land, but the final amount drew protests from conservation groups who argued lawmakers were ignoring the will of voters.

Lawmakers have until the end of the month to pass a new state budget or parts of state government will be shut down. The Florida Legislature’s special session is scheduled to end on June 20.

House and Senate budget negotiators have been working over the weekend at the state Capitol on some of the remaining contentious items, including money for conservation.

Voters last fall overwhelmingly approved Amendment 1, which changed the state constitution to earmark hundreds of millions of dollars for conservation programs. Backers of the amendment had hoped its passage would spur legislators to replenish the state’s Florida Forever program which had its funding cut during the recession.

But the deal announced Sunday evening calls for just $55 million on land acquisition, including $17.4 million for Florida Forever.

“When 4.2 million people voted yes for Amendment 1 they voted to restore funding for the Florida Forever program to protect wildlife habitat and parks throughout this state and this budget does not reflect that,” said Will Abberger, the chairman of the group that sponsored the amendment.

The amendment called for legislators to set aside roughly $750 million from an existing real estate tax on environmental programs. Legislative leaders contend they are complying with the amendment, but they have done that by directing Amendment 1 money to existing programs.

Sen. Tom Lee, the Brandon Republican and Senate budget chief, said there just wasn’t enough money this year for additional land buying. Senate leaders took a strong stance against borrowing money for land acquisition even though Amendment 1 authorized it.

“We were limited in what we could do,” Lee said.

Lee suggested that legislators may be able to do more during their 2016 session which starts next January.

The final deal on environmental spending also falls short of what Gov. Rick Scott had proposed earlier this year. Scott had proposed $150 million for Everglades restoration. Budget negotiators agreed to nearly $82 million. Lawmakers have also agreed to set aside nearly $33 million on an ongoing initiative to help improve some of the state’s troubled springs.

Top lawmakers still have not reached a final deal on education spending, which is one of the largest parts of the roughly $78 billion budget.

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