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Malevolent deceit of capitol gang is staggering

By GREG HAMILTON
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 19, 2002

To best explain the unconscionable raid by the leadership in Tallahassee on the state's land preservation funds, I'll borrow Gary Maidhof's succinct description: "It's the new millennium's version of the lottery steal," said our county's director of development services.

The gutting of the Preservation 2000 funds is just the latest thumbing of the nose at the state's environment by the shameless leaders in the capitol, but it's a huge one. After absconding with $75-million from the trust fund last year (they promised to pay it back; they lied), the legislators were overcome by greed rather than remorse.

This year's theft is $100-million.

The money comes from bonds that citizens, in good faith, have purchased over the past decade to support a program to buy environmentally sensitive lands. The people recognized that a state growing at breakneck speed needs to hold on to as much open land as possible for aquifer recharge and a host of other common-sense reasons.

The Republican legislators, however, place a much higher priority on playing Santa to businesses and wealthy campaign donors, and the money for this year's $262-million corporate welfare giveaway has to come from somewhere. Having already taken money from schools, poor children, the elderly, middle-income workers and single mothers, the legislators have now turned to the environment.

To those citizens who feel duped, Ben Watkins, director of the state Division of Bond Finance, has a response dripping with arrogance.

"Tell them to call their legislators. Other than that, they don't have any legal claim," Watkins told the Times recently. "The bondholders have no legal right to care at all what the state is doing with the money."

Coupled with the so-called Trojan Horse Everglades bill, where the Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush agreed to meet the state's federal obligations to fund Everglades restoration but tacked on an amendment from state Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, to hamstring the rights of citizens to protest development, the measures represent new lows for the Tallahassee crowd.

The impacts of both efforts will be felt throughout the state but especially in places like Citrus County.

The amendment resurrects a legislative attempt shot down earlier this year to limit citizen standing in protesting developments. The law now allows only people who can prove they are personally affected by a proposed development to file challenges. That means groups such as the nationwide Sierra Club, despite having numerous Floridians as members, cannot get involved in fighting potentially damaging developments.

"The exclusionary tactics of the new law impact far more than Sierra Club's Florida citizens, they affect all Florida citizens," said Tom Reese, a Public Interest environmental attorney. "The new law radically changes the relationship of citizens to their government, specifically hindering citizens from forming ad hoc groups to contest bad permitting decisions by local government."

In Citrus County, that means groups such as the Homosassa River Alliance, which is protesting the Halls River Retreat condo project, could become a thing of the past.

Attorney General Bob Butterworth, more than 100 homeowners, religious and environmental groups as well as editorial boards around the state all called for the bill to be killed. Instead, on Wednesday, Bush signed it into law.

As disgraceful as those actions are, they pale compared to the heist of the land-acquisition funds.

Preservation 2000 started in the early 1990s and so far it has protected more than 1-million acres of springs, swamps, forests, beaches and scrub from development. If you want to grasp the impact of this effort on Citrus County, consider some of the areas that the public has acquired through this and other similar programs:

Potts Preserve, Flying Eagle Ranch, Gum Slough, the Cross-Florida Greenway, the Chassahowitzka swamps, the Lecanto sandhills, the Annutteliga Hammock, the land that has become the Academy of Environmental Science on the Salt River, the Homosassa tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest, the Crystal River Buffer Preserve, Jordan Ranch, and the Withlacoochee State Trail.

Just imagine how different our county would be if these natural jewels were gone, and developments were in their place. We'd be no better than Pasco, Pinellas and Broward counties.

As Maidhof pointed out, when you preserve these properties not only do you retain wildlife habitat, enhance air quality and recharge the aquifer, you also eliminate the need to extend services to them.

"It's one card in the deck," he said. When the state takes away potential water recharge areas and replaces them with development, we not only lose water we increase the demand on what remains. That, in turn, leads the developed areas to look elsewhere for water.

Ah, but the state has a "local sources first" law to protect places like Citrus from such water raids, right? Yes, we do. At the moment, at least.

"What the Legislature giveth, the Legislature can take away," Maidhof said.

And the legislative leadership's deceit knows no bounds. Last year, for instance, the lawmakers took $75-million from Preservation 2000 and put it in an Everglades program. They then pulled money already in the program and used it to plug holes in the rickety state budget.

As Maidhof correctly points out, it's a repeat of the infamous lottery scam. You no doubt recall that millions of dollars in lottery revenues went to the state education budget but rather than use that money as intended, to enhance education, it simply replaced money that legislators slipped out the back door, away from schools.

Dozens of citizen groups have seen through the ruse this time. They note that the money leaving the preservation fund is going to plug holes in the budget left by the $262-million corporate tax cut.

"It is an irony that money set aside to save natural areas is being diverted to pay for luring new growth and development to the state," said Nature Conservancy lobbyist Sue Mullins.

After viewing the actions of these so-called leaders, you feel the need to take a shower to wash away the slime. But do so quickly. At the rate they're going, we might not have much water left when they're through.

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