Third of three days of coverage about Gov. Rick Scott’s and the 2011 Legislature’s approach to business and environmental issues.
Part three, today: Is environmental protection taking a back seat to business development?
Read part two below:
Read part one below:
TALLAHASSEE _ Environmental issues are always part of the legislative give-and-take when Florida lawmakers convene in Tallahassee.
Midway through this year’s session, though, the give-and-take is looking more like a hit-and-run to conservation groups.
“We are under assault on all fronts,” Audubon of Florida executive director Eric Draper said. “We’re getting beaten up pretty hard up here.”
Bills are moving through the state Legislature that would deregulate growth management, repeal septic tank inspection requirements and create new exemptions from wetlands permitting rules.
Other bills seek to roll back local government fertilizer bans and blunt controversial new EPA regulations that would set stricter standards for nutrient pollution caused, in part, by fertilizer runoff into Florida waterways.
Even rescuing the Florida Forever land preservation program, a salve in the past for environmental groups bruised by rocky legislative sessions, looks like a long shot this year amid budget worries, Draper said.
Gov. Rick Scott’s budget includes no money for the program — the first governor of either party not to fund it.
The bad news for environmental causes represents a new political reality in the halls of the state Capitol, where calls for limited government are getting a warm reception from tea party-backed legislators, environmental advocates say.
“The crazy radical extremist bills are now the mainstream in the state Legislature,” said Earthjustice managing attorney David Guest, whose lawsuit spurred the EPA regulations that legislators are targeting.
The tea party message is dovetailing with a drumbeat of calls to reduce government regulations as a way to create jobs and buoy Florida’s weakened economy.
Scott has made reducing the size of government a hallmark of his administration but says that doesn’t mean the environment will suffer.
“Gov. Scott is committed to protecting Florida’s natural resources while also balancing the need to get Floridians back to work,” according to a statement from Scott’s office.
Draper draws a distinction between Scott’s governing philosophy and what is happening in the state Legislature.
Scott’s proposals realign power and change governance, such as with proposals to reduce and merge growth management oversight into other agencies and give the governor power over water management district budgets.
On the other hand, bills moving through the Legislature would unravel the laws themselves, Draper said.
“There’s more bad bills this year than I’ve ever seen and they’re moving more quickly,” he said.
“There’s more bad bills this year than I’ve ever seen and they’re moving more quickly,” Audubon of Florida executive director Eric Draper said.
Draper said environmental advocates are scrambling to mount a counterattack, but the influence of the tea party in Tallahassee is leaving environmental groups with fewer legislators friendly to their cause and is making it more difficult to keep the friends they have.
Topping Draper’s list of bills to defeat is one that would redefine agricultural activities and open up loopholes in wetlands permitting rules.
For example, landowners who are “fallowing” or “leveling” land could qualify for agricultural exemptions as long as their activities are “not for the sole or predominant purpose” of affecting wetlands or water flow.
The bill also would transfer power to grant exemptions from the water management districts to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Another deregulation bill would make it easier for developers to meet wetlands mitigation requirements and would take mining out of the more intensive reviews as so-called Developments of Regional Impact.
A hard-fought victory for environmental advocates in the 2010 session is facing repeal in 2011.
That bill would remove the requirement for annual septic tank inspections, which opponents had decried as too burdensome for homeowners, and would repeal a ban on spreading septic tank waste on open fields.
It is not all bad news for environmental advocates, though.
For example, some of the deregulation provisions have stalled in the Senate, where the repeal of the ban on sewage spreading also has been removed.
“Things could be worse, but not much worse,” said Guest, with Earthjustice.
Guest is pinning his hopes for salvaging the 2011 session on his belief that politics usually works to defeat radical change, not embrace it.
That is how it has worked in past legislative sessions, he said, but it remains to be seen whether the 2011 session will follow suit.
“There’s real hope that rationalist momentum will be great enough to soften it substantially,” Guest said.