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    Changes to Glades bill alarm Congress

    Florida sends its environmental chief to reassure members of Congress and to salvage federal aid.

    By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 16, 2003


    TALLAHASSEE -- With the state Legislature ready to pass an Everglades bill that some members of Congress say could jeopardize billions in federal aid to Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush's environmental chief will be in Washington today to try to head off political fallout.

    On Tuesday he was in a Florida Senate committee room where dark-suited lobbyists lined the walls and hastily scrawled amendments got passed unanimously before the public got a chance to see them.

    The Legislature is rapidly changing the state law that guides Everglades restoration, a law honed by years of court battles and negotiations.

    David Struhs, head of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said he will reassure Washington lawmakers today that Florida is committed to a massive pollution cleanup in the Everglades, the largest environmental restoration project ever in the United States.

    Eight Washington lawmakers -- Democrat and Republican -- have written letters saying they are worried that Florida is tinkering with its Everglades Forever Act, a law so detailed that a judge declared it as a consent decree to end years of Everglades lawsuits.

    Florida and the federal government are splitting the $8.4-billion price tag, so Congress has a huge stake in Florida's law.

    Two members of Florida's congressional delegation, Republican U.S. Reps. Porter Goss and Clay Shaw, warned in a letter that making changes to the Florida law "could be a fatal error."

    More hurried changes were made Tuesday. The Senate Natural Resources Committee passed its Everglades bill unanimously. Years of painstaking agreements, forged in courts and in legislative arenas, were changed in a matter of minutes. Amendments dashed off in a hallway were so confusing that lobbyists on both sides were scratching their heads and dialing up their lawyers.

    The bill (S 626) could head to the full Senate as early as next week. The Florida House is also ready to hear its version of the Everglades bill.

    Changes to Florida's Everglades Forever Act were a surprise this legislative session, and environmentalists say they are being pushed by a phalanx of 46 lobbyists for the sugar industry. Sugar growers are among the chief polluters in the Everglades, and they are prolific campaign contributors with legendary political clout in Tallahassee and in Washington.

    But even the sugar industry was complaining about the Senate bill Tuesday. U.S. Sugar lobbyist Robert Coker said the bill will be "a detour to the courts." Environmentalists said the bill isn't needed and will delay cleanup.

    Looming over the debate is a worry that the fight in Tallahassee will affect Florida's ability to compete for federal money in Congress, where lawmakers from all over the United States are seeking money for hometown projects.

    U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula of Ohio, the senior Republican member of the congressional subcommittee that hands out federal dollars for environmental restoration, issued a warning in a letter last week to Gov. Bush:

    "The Interior subcommittee has committed close to $1-billion since 1994 to demonstrate its commitment to this restoration project," Regula wrote. "It has been challenging to maintain this funding commitment over the last several years because of the decreasing allocations . . . due to the federal deficit and paying for both the war in Iraq and homeland security needs."

    The Legislature's tinkering with the state law, Regula said, "sends a very troubling signal."

    Letters of objection have also been fired off by members of the Florida delegation, including Reps. Shaw and Goss, and Democratic Reps. Jim Davis and Peter Deutsch.

    The DEP's Struhs has publicly supported the bills which change the Everglades Forever Act. He said said he will meet with Goss and Shaw today and "explain to them our commitment" to cleaning up the Everglades.

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