It’s always been a lonely fight as a Republican in the Florida Legislature when it comes to environmental policy. Only a few Republicans see the value in preserving our natural resources and ensuring a clean and adequate water supply.
It’s hard to fathom, as our economy is dependent on these resources for our top three economic drivers: tourism, agriculture and development.
When tourism was expected to be down in Florida during the height of the national recession, it was ecotourism that kept our tourism revenue afloat. People flock to Florida, more than 80 million annually, for our beautiful beaches, our pristine parks, our world-class fishing and our nature-based recreation: canoeing, kayaking, hiking, horseback riding, bird watching, fishing and hunting.
In order to be competitive with other states and countries, our farmers and ranchers need a safe and plentiful water supply to nurture our row crops, grow our citrus and provide green pastures for our cattle.
In survey after survey of potential businesses looking to relocate, the decision-makers indicate that quality of life in the courting state is one of the major considerations. Most manufacturing endeavors require considerable water resources, including electric generation. Families looking to relocate expect clean water to flow when they turn on the spigots.
And, historically, one of the country’s leading advocates for conservation and preservation was our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy, a Republican, was noted for his accomplishments that included trust busting and conservationism.
In Florida, former Republican Govs. Bob Martinez and Jeb Bush and then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist each promoted good environmental policy while in office.
Many Republicans self-identify as part of the religious right. These individuals should be among the strongest supporters of protecting God’s creation and being good stewards of the land to preserve for future generations.
Yet this year a plethora of potentially damaging bills are being introduced in the Florida Legislature. One such bill, SB 584 by state Sen. Alan Hays, sought to limit the amount of land purchased by the state for conservation and preservation. Florida Current reporter Bruce Ritchie quoted Hays as comparing the state conservation land-buying program to the TV show “Hoarders.”
Although 28 percent of Florida’s land is owned by federal, state and local agencies, it is important to note that those holdings include military bases, highways, prison sites, school and university campuses, airports and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, in addition to state and national parks and forests. The Everglades is a considerable portion of the federal environmental lands.
Thankfully, due in part to tough questioning by state Sen. Jack Latvala, the bill sponsor indicated the bill is dead for this year but promises it will return.
Next up is HB 999 by state Rep. Jimmy Patronis. Sparked by a local dispute between a county and a stormwater district, the bill deals with a range of environmental permitting issues and would allow some water control districts to be exempt from state wetlands permitting.
While presenting the bill in a House committee, the sponsor called it a “Christmas tree” that had “everything but the kitchen sink in it.” Opponents claim the bill offers no additional environmental benefit but instead costs the districts and local government time and money, paid for by the taxpayers. The House bill passed its final committee unanimously. The Senate bill still has a few more stops.
A recurring bill that I have helped defeat on numerous occasions is back for another strong-armed attempt to circumvent the concept of local rule by city and county governments. This will be the seventh attempt to preempt local bans on fertilizing lawns during rainy seasons, a ban intended to protect our waterways from pollution. This provision has also been tacked onto HB 999 to help ensure its passage.
It seems foolish to allow pollution of our vital resources. This will be very costly to clean up — not to mention the resulting invasive plant proliferation that taxpayers will have to fund to eradicate. This seems to fly in the face of fiscal responsibility, which is a cornerstone of conservative ideology.
The concept of local government decisions being closer to the people and addressing local needs over a statewide, one-size fits all statute was once a principle embraced by my fellow Republicans.
What’s dangerous about these and other bills is the legislators’ mindset that anything we can do short-term to aid development and address concerns raised by the special interests (ever-present during the legislative session) should supersede any potential long-term damage to our natural resources and quality of life.
It’s unclear whether it’s a purposeful indifference to, or a lack of knowledge of, environmental protections. What is clear is that average citizens need to be heard on these issues before irreparable harm is done to our beautiful state and all that makes Florida attractive to its residents, tourists, farmers and job creators.