News from Tallahassee for 10/2/14

Everglades Foundation offers $10 million water pollution cleanup prize posted on 9/23/14

by andy reid | Orlando Sentinel

Everglades advocates are dangling a $10 million prize to motivate scientists and businesses to solve a water pollution problem plaguing South Florida.

The Everglades Foundation on Monday unveiled a competition to find ways to remove excessive phosphorus from waterways and then recycle it to fertilize crops elsewhere.

Taxpayers have already spent nearly $2 billion trying to remove high levels of phosphorus from the stormwater that flows into the Everglades. The Everglades Foundation and its anonymous donor are banking that the $10 million prize will help offer new solutions.

"It is time for some competition and innovation to come forward," said Eric Eikenberg, Everglades Foundation CEO. "Things have to change. The private sector has to step forward to solve these problems."

Phosphorus is found in fertilizer, animal waste and the natural decay of soil.

Too much phosphorus washing off farmland and urban areas is causing problems in Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades and other Florida waterways, as well as waters around the world.

An overload of phosphorus can fuel toxic algae blooms that kill fishing grounds and make waters unsafe for swimming. Phosphorus-loaded water in the Everglades spawns the growth of cattails that force out sawgrass needed for animal habitat.

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Group Launches 'Rick Scott's Ark Tour' To Keep Climate Change In Fla. Governor's Race posted on 9/19/14

by JESSICA PALOMBO | WFSU

Blocks away from the Florida Capitol today, a group targeting climate-change deniers kicked off what it’s calling “Rick Scott’s Ark Tour.” The NextGen Climate Action Committee has spent more than $3.6 million so far in an attempt to inject climate change as an issue in the Florida governor’s race, according to finance records filed with the state.

Noah’s ark, or what looks just like it, was parked at a meter on a busy Tallahassee street. During the lunch-hour rush here, about two dozen college students were waving signs and handing out T-shirts to passing drivers.

The ark is part of a narrative spun by the NextGen Climate Action Committee, which is part of a national effort by billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer to defeat candidates who fail to act on climate change. At Tallahassee’s Florida tour kickoff, the group played a video with a movie-trailer voiceover saying, after years of denying climate change science, Scott comes up with a plan to flee.

“Rick Scott has built an ark. Will there be room for you?” the voice booms.

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For-profit firms muscle out homeowner preservation groups, report says posted on 9/17/14

by Kimberly Miller | Palm Beach Post

foreclosure signThousands of defaulted Florida mortgages have been auctioned to the highest bidder in a landmark federal program that critics say is benefiting for-profit Wall Street firms instead of borrowers trying to stay in their homes.

Launched in 2012, the Distressed Asset Stabilization Program sells discounted loans to private corporations with the idea that they have more flexibility to modify mortgages than what can be done at the federal level, such as offering reductions on mortgage debt balances.

According to the first evaluation of the program released in August by the U.S. Deprtment of Housing and Urban Development, about 13,850 Florida mortgages have been purchased by private companies through the program. That’s the highest amount of any other state, with a total of 91,114 loans sold nationwide.

But less than 3 percent of the auctions have been won by non-profit organizations whose main objective is maintaining homeownership.

The majority of winning bids are cast by for-profit private equity firms such as Texas-based Lone Star Funds and Coral Gables-based Bayview Asset Management, whose main stakeholder is Wall Street’s Blackstone Group.

“The non-profits keep getting outbid, and, in some cases, it appears the market is taking over the goal of the program,” said Connie Razza, director of strategic research for the Center for Popular Democracy, which released a report critical of the program this month. “The competition is driving bidders to pay more and more for the loans, meaning there is less room to be able to work with homeowners to keep them in their home.”

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Big Sugar building proposal raises Everglades restoration concerns posted on 9/12/14

by andy reid | Orlando Sentinel

Everglades restoration could get torpedoed by a sugar industry push to allow new neighborhoods and shopping centers on 43,000 acres of farmland south of Lake Okeechobee, according to environmental activists.

Dozens of environmental advocacy organizations on Thursday called for Gov. Rick Scott and the South Florida Water Management District to put the brakes on the proposed Sugar Hill development plan for sugar cane fields near Clewiston in Hendry County, not far from Palm Beach County's western boundary.

U.S. Sugar Corp. and Hilliard Brothers are trying to get development approvals that could eventually allow 18,000 new homes and 25 million square feet of shops, offices and other development on sugar cane fields located between Lake Okeechobee and what remains of the Everglades.

If allowed, the sprawling development threatens to block Everglades restoration efforts to move more Lake Okeechobee water south to Everglades National Park. Sugar Hill would be the "death knell" of the Everglades, said Jonathan Ullman, of the Sierra Club.

"If we want to restore the Everglades water flow … we need to say no to this plan," Ullman said.

Even if Sugar Hill isn't built, just getting development approval could drive up the price of the farmland and make it more expensive for taxpayers to buy the land for Everglades restoration.

"It would do a … disservice to taxpayers to let this move forward," said Lisa Interlandi of the Everglades Law Center.

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Lawmakers OK $25 million for springs clean-up posted on 9/11/14

by Aaron Deslatte | Orlando Sentinel

TALLAHASSEE – About two-dozen Florida springs clean-up projects got a $25 million taxpayer infusion Wednesday when a budget-writing panel signed off on plans to clean up leaky septic tanks and polluted waters, feeding both springs and development.

Three of the projects also benefit an Apopka development, a sod farm, and golf courses in Citrus County.

The money was pushed by Gov. Rick Scott and included in the state budget the Florida Legislature passed in May. After that, the Department of Environmental Protection had to narrow down a list of 50 projects for the cash. The Legislature’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee signed off on the list Wednesday.

Florida’s springs are becoming a higher priority as the economy recovers and policymakers have more money to dole out.

Scott, a Republican in a tight re-election fight with Democrat Charlie Crist, has also pledged to push for $1 billion in environmental projects.

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