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Local legislators ready agendas

By DAN DeWITT and COLLEEN JENKINS
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 4, 2003

Last year, Rep. David Russell finally passed a law that tied development to the availability of water.

The problem, critics said, was that it didn't tie the two very tightly, focusing more on developing new sources of water than limiting development if resources were unavailable.

Russell is now proposing a new bill to fix that.

"This takes up where the legislation that we passed last year left off. We established a link between water and development. But I don't believe it to be a strong enough link to stand the test of time," said Russell, R-Brooksville.

The new bill will essentially require that, before a development is approved, the local government must show that enough water is available to supply it. This would make water no different than roads, parks and other public facilities currently required by the state's growth management laws.

"What we're seeking is full-blown concurrency," Russell said.

Water issues are high on the list of priorities of most of the lawmakers who represent Hernando County as this year's legislative session approaches. When it starts on Tuesday, it will be the first time in more than a decade that Hernando County will not be served by its own senator.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, now represents the east side of the county, and Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, represents the west side. And, though Russell continues to represent most of the county, the district of former Citrus County Sheriff Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, includes a slice of northwestern Hernando.

Dockery will sponsor Russell's water bill in the Senate, though she said she doubted it would pass without considerable compromise.

"I'm not sure were going to be able to take it as far as Dave's version goes," she said.

And Dean, who was elected to the House of Representatives last year, is pushing a bill that would create citizen councils in Citrus and Hernando counties charged with developing strategies for restoring the quality of local waterways.

The bill passed both houses during the last session, but critics persuaded the governor to veto it.

Local lawmakers also say they will be working to increase resources available to veterans, to make textbooks cheaper for local school districts and to seek increased rights for homeowners.

Though Russell has not yet filed his water legislation, his initial goals are ambitious, he said. Among other measures, he wants to prevent landowners who have pumping permits from selling those rights to others. Several groups of such landowners, including a coalition in eastern Pasco County, are forming to sell pumping rights to utilities.

One other issue related to utilities: Russell wants to close the loophole that allows local governments to own utilities that do not serve their residents. This is a response to the pending purchase of Florida Water Services by two small towns in northern Florida; however, it would not stop the purchase.

Russell and Fasano are working together to exempt Hernando and Pasco school districts from the law requiring that all state-adopted instructional materials be bought from the Florida School Book Depository, a private company based in Jacksonville.

"It looks very positive for us to be able to save millions of dollars by outsourcing our textbook needs," Russell said. "We think Hernando alone could save as much as $300,000."

Fasano, Dean and Dockery are all new to their current positions. Dockery and Fasano both said their long service in the House of Representatives should prepare them well for the Senate. And, in an indication that Senate leadership agrees with her, she was named one of two Senate majority whips in January.

In addition to being a whip, she is chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Home Defense, Public Security and Ports. The duties of this position, which include lobbying in Washington and testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives, will distract her somewhat from pushing bills that she is sponsoring.

So will trying to find enough money in the state budget, she said.

"Almost every decision we make up here is going to be clouded by what we're doing on the budget," she said.

One of her main concerns on this front is Gov. Jeb Bush's plan to take money from trust funds devoted for environmental purposes.

"There are very few people who have taken an interest in the environmental trust funds," she said.

Another environmental issue is addressed by one of the bills she is sponsoring. It would set up a funding mechanism for the state to protect farmland from development. Farmers that own land near developed areas would receive payments from the state; in return, they and subsequent owners would be contractually bound to use the land for agriculture.

Dean said he had prepared for his job with years of lobbying in Tallahassee as sheriff.

"It's like getting geared up for the big ballgame," Dean said. "You can't wait to blow the whistle and get started."

He said the citizens' water councils were badly needed.

"We've got terrible, rotten water coming into the water," he said. "We're trying to build the quality of the water back up for consumption and recreation."

Dean is also backing legislation that would allow homeowners to take more legal action against builders who bilk buyers out of money.

Like other lawmakers, Dean noted that finding the money to keep current programs running would be legislators' main challenge. He said they've also got to implement constitutional amendments approved by voters, such as those reducing class sizes and funneling more state funding to county court systems.

Fasano, chairman of the Senate's Military and Veterans' Affairs, Base Protection and Spaceports committee, wants to pass legislation that would provide greater protection to those serving in the military.

Currently, military personnel called to active duty are penalized financially if they must break a rental lease agreement or cancel auto insurance early, Fasano said. That's unfair, said the senator, who represents Citrus County residents living west of U.S. 19.

"We want to make sure that when they put their lives at risk for us, companies aren't penalizing them," he said.

He's also backing a 40 percent increase in funding for the Department of Veterans' Affairs. That money will help build more state-owned and operated nursing homes for veterans throughout Florida, he said.

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