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Legislature delays Everglades cleanup 7 years

Republicans put the court-negotiated, $8-billion restoration on hold. A judge has called a hearing for Friday.

Published May 1, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Brushing off concerns that it could cost Florida billions in federal aid, the Legislature voted Wednesday to delay cleanup in the Everglades by seven years.

The bill, now headed to Gov. Jeb Bush for his signature, originally proposed to delay the cleanup by 20 years.

The House voted 96-18 to delay the cleanup with a bill opposed by environmental groups and supported by Everglades sugar growers and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Most of the no votes were from Democrats. But two Tampa Bay area Republicans - Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor and John Carassas of Largo - also voted against the bill.

Carassas said he was concerned this week when Republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young came out against the bill. Young is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which will shepherd federal dollars for Everglades cleanup. State and federal taxpayers are splitting the $8-billion tab.

"I know my congressman Young said that he was concerned about the federal funding for the cleanup, and I didn't want to jeopardize that," Carassas said.

Also weighing in from Washington: Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a leading Democratic presidential candidate. Kerry said the legislation "jeopardizes the pathbreaking state-federal partnership at the heart of Everglades restoration." Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, another presidential hopeful, also has expressed reservations about the bill.

Wednesday's Florida House vote capped a bitter political fight, with millions of dollars spent on television advertisements, phone banks, and, this week, a negative direct mail campaign aimed at voters in the district of House Speaker Johnnie Byrd of Plant City.

The flier, mailed by an environmental group called the Everglades Trust, asks, "Why would Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd sell out the Florida Everglades?"

On the House floor, Democrats argued against the bill, but most members ignored them. Some Republican supporters argued that sugar growers aren't the real culprit, blaming development north of the Everglades instead.

"This problem originates at Disney World," said Rep. Joseph Spratt, R-Clewiston, who sponsored the bill.

After the vote, Florida Audubon lobbyist Charles Lee charged: "It's clear that the Legislature is bought and paid for" by campaign cash from the sugar growers.

U.S. Sugar Corp. lobbyist Robert Coker shot back: "I'm sick and tired of environmental extremists of this state hiding behind Everglades restoration because they don't like the sugar industry."

The issue will end up in a Miami courtroom Friday. A federal judge who has overseen the cleanup for more than a decade has called an emergency hearing because, he said, he had been reading news accounts about the Legislature's actions with "considerable apprehension."

The 1994 law that the Legislature changed Wednesday, the Everglades Forever Act, is the basis for a settlement that ended a lawsuit between the state and federal governments. In 1988, the Justice Department sued Florida, saying the state allowed too much pollution in Everglades National Park.

The pollution runs off farms and lawns, and tips the natural balance in the vast marsh. The Everglades cleanup, which involves digging canals, punching holes into limestone and building fake marshes to filter water, is the largest environmental restoration ever attempted in the U.S.

Bush pledged to support Everglades cleanup during his campaign. Now, environmental groups will be asking the governor to veto the Everglades bill.

They found themselves in the same position last year. They asked Bush to veto an Everglades funding bill, because another measure, one that limits citizens' ability to challenge development, was attached to it. Bush signed the law.

- Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report.

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