Glades bill heads for Senate showdown
By JULIE HAUSERMAN and CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writers
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 25, 2003
TALLAHASSEE - As a bill delaying a key part of the Everglades cleanup heads for its first vote in the Florida Senate today, political pressure is mounting on both sides of the debate.
A group with ties to the sugar industry, the Everglades Forever Partnership, began running television advertisements around the state and sponsoring telephone calls to voters, urging them to phone Gov. Jeb Bush to support the bill. The ads refer to delaying the cleanup by up to 20 years as "the next phase of Everglades restoration."
Pearl Troyer, 68, of Tampa got a call from the group Thursday morning. "They said, "Are you interested in saving the Everglades? Let me connect you to the governor's office to get him to vote yes,' " she said.
Troyer told the caller she would love to talk to the governor's office about the Everglades - but when she was connected to Bush's office she lambasted the governor's staff for not standing up to legislators who want to push back the cleanup deadline.
"In 20 more years, the Everglades will be gone," Troyer said.
Meanwhile, the heads of nine national environmental groups, including the National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society, called on President Bush to get his brother to block the delay. Otherwise, they said, the Legislature's tinkering might persuade Congress to drop federal funding for the $8-billion Everglades restoration.
"It will be a major mistake if the Legislature unilaterally makes fundamental changes to basic tenets of restoration without careful cooperation with the federal partner," the letter to the president states.
A federal court settlement and a state law passed in 1994 require Florida officials to sharply curtail the phosphorus pollution flowing into the Everglades no later than 2006. Although a lot of the pollution has been eliminated, reaching the final goal will be impossible by the deadline, say state officials.
So in mid session, lawmakers sprang a surprise: a bill that would push back the deadline, as well as not relax the phosphorus standard. The Senate version of the bill pushes the deadline back 10 years, while the House version pushes it back 20 years.
The full Senate takes up the measure today, though a final vote is unlikely. The House is expected to consider the proposal next week. The federal judge overseeing the Everglades cleanup has ordered state and federal officials to his courtroom May 2, the last scheduled day of the session, for an emergency hearing on the matter.
Senate President Jim King said the Senate is "gingerly going forward" because of the order by U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler. "If we pass it and he puts it in the can, there's a problem."
Environmental groups and legislators from both parties have expressed alarm. The bill's sponsors, the state's top environmental regulator and sugar executives say the critics are overreacting or misinformed.
The calls sponsored by the Everglades Forever Partnership contend that the objections from "liberal environmentalists" will derail the cleanup.
Corporate records show the Everglades Forever Partnership is a West Palm Beach company whose directors are Randy Nielsen, Richard Johnston and Pradeep Asnani. The three are partners in a political consulting firm called Public Concepts.
Nielsen, 40, has been one of the biggest political consultants in Palm Beach for years. In 1994, Nielsen helped guide the strategy of sugar companies in shooting down a statewide referendum on imposing a penny-per-pound tax on sugar to pay for cleaning up the River of Grass.
Nielsen, 40, did not return repeated calls Thursday seeking comment about who was bankrolling the ads, and Johnston, 36, would not comment. But U.S. Sugar vice president Robert Coker said, "Yeah, we had something to do with that."
Audubon lobbyist Eric Draper labeled the phone calls "AstroTurf" - a false grass-roots momentum.
"It's unfortunate that the industry would try to misrepresent what we're trying to do on this bill by using terms like "liberal environmentalists,' " he said.
The sugar-backed ads are in response to a wave of TV ads sponsored by environmental groups that talk about the influence of "Big Sugar" and show envelopes of cash being slipped into suit coat pockets. An environmental group called The Everglades Trust spent about $1-million airing them. The ads also urged viewers to call the governor's office.
The governor's office has received 2,247 calls about the Everglades issue over the past three days: 846 on Monday, 668 on Tuesday and 733 on Wednesday. The calls might be pointless, though. Bush's office staff says they do not keep a tally of how many were for or against it.
"Most of the calls were from people supporting continued restoration of the Everglades, not specifically about the bills being considered by the Legislature," Bush spokeswoman Alia Faraj said. Bush also received 900 e-mails, and 267 copies of a form letter that asks Bush to "reject the sugar industry's demand for a weaker pollution standard."
The sugar-backed TV ads may not have generated many calls to Bush: The phone number shown at the end of the ad connects to a recording saying it cannot be completed as dialed.
- Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Lucy Morgan, and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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