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    A Times Editorial

    Bush's sugar-coated bill

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 20, 2003

    Gov. Jeb Bush is trying to sell this line to people who practice politics for a living: Sure, we are extending a deadline that is written into law, replacing the date 2006 with 2026, but we have no intention of delaying anything.

    This was the message Bush's Department of Environmental Protection secretary, David Struhs, brought to Washington on Wednesday. Struhs tried to persuade angry members of Congress that Florida is not planning to delay cleanup of the Everglades, but his main achievement was to provide comic relief.

    Just hours after their meeting with Struhs, two Republican U.S. representatives from Florida, Porter Goss and Clay Shaw, issued another stern warning: "It is . . . our continued recommendation that the Florida Legislature table this flawed bill at this time. We cannot overemphasize the fact that to do otherwise would seriously jeopardize the federal dollars that are ultimately needed to ensure our mutual goal." U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton also got into the act, telling a National Press Club luncheon that: "We are concerned by the efforts to slow down implementation of water quality programs."

    Bush's response reveals a disquieting level of contempt for those in Washington who have gone to bat for Florida. "Environmental politics is like, so politically correct, so focused on perception rather than reality," he said Thursday.

    No matter how Bush and Struhs wish to dress things up, though, the bill they are supporting this year in the Legislature is a delay. The House version delays a key cleanup deadline by 20 years, and Congress would be foolish to ignore that.

    The federal government is investing $8.4-billion into the cleanup based, in large part, on the commitment the state made in 1994 to adhere to a strict schedule of pollution reductions. That schedule was designed to force all the responsible Everglades polluters to pay up, and to remove their chronic excuses.

    Struhs may well be right that the next threshold of pollution reduction, to reduce phosphorous content in all runoff water to 10 parts per billion, is formidable. But similar claims were made about the reductions that already have been achieved, and those improvements would not have been possible without enforcement of strict regulatory deadlines. Gentle persuasion has never meant much to the sugar industry.

    Bush can't really believe that deadlines get in the way of environmental progress, and he has categorically rejected deadline extensions for 12,000 high school seniors who may not get diplomas. No, this is about the political muscle of the sugar industry, and it gets Florida nowhere to pretend otherwise.

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