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Legislature

Environmentalists grumble over bills

Environmental groups ask Gov. Jeb Bush to veto pro-business measures passed at the end of the legislative session.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN
Published May 4, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - If dry cleaning chemicals pollute your back yard, you can't sue. Local governments can't regulate agriculture. And the Everglades cleanup may be delayed for seven years.

If Gov. Jeb Bush approves, all those ideas will become law in Florida.

As the 2003 legislative session ended Friday, lots of people in Florida were grumbling that the Legislature left some major state issues unresolved. But lobbyists for business and agriculture left the Capitol smiling: Some of their key bills passed quickly with almost no debate on the session's final day. Environmental groups and local governments spoke out against some of the measures, but the Legislature largely ignored their concerns.

Now, environmentalists are hoping to have more success with Bush and will urge him to veto the measures.

"Polluters are getting off like it's a cakewalk," said Sierra Club lobbyist Susie Caplowe on the session's last day as a series of measures she described as anti-environment sailed through the Senate and House with no opposition.

Some legislators boasted openly on the House and Senate floors that their particular legislation was "an industry bill" - meaning it was written by businesses seeking relief from environmental laws.

One victorious business: Publix Super Markets Inc. Publix and the Florida Retail Federation backed a bill sponsored by state Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, that prevents people from suing if their land is polluted by dry cleaning chemicals. Not a single lawmaker in the Legislature voted against it, and there was no debate.

Hundreds of sites are polluted by dry cleaning chemicals all over Florida because the chemicals are so potent they can seep through concrete floors into groundwater. Publix, which owns some shopping centers where dry cleaners have polluted, sought to change state law because the company lost a lawsuit filed by a nearby property owner. Publix argued it was unfair for the company to be sued while it already was working to clean up the site.

The bill says that if the owner of a polluted site voluntarily agrees to start cleaning up, neighbors can't sue, even if the contamination hurts their property value. The bill declares that the public interest of "improved marketability" outweighs the right of an individual to sue.

Critics say the bill violates residents' constitutional right to the courts.

On the frantic final day of the Legislature, lawmakers also passed:

A bill that prevents local governments from regulating agriculture, previously known as "The Right To Farm Act." The Florida Association of Counties opposed the bill, as did the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission.

Several area Republican lawmakers were co-sponsors of the bill, including state Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon, state Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey, state Rep. Nancy Argenziano of Crystal River and state Rep. Charlie Dean of Inverness.

"What the Legislature did was to strip local governments of their ability to regulate," said Rick Tschantz, EPC general counsel.

Some lawmakers tried and failed to exempt Hillsborough County from the bill. In the end, all local lawmakers voted for it.

Afterward, Democratic House members Charlie Justice of St. Petersburg and Arthenia Joyner of Tampa said they intend to change their vote to "no."

Justice said he was out of the room when someone pushed his "yes" button. He didn't know who.

"You know how those things happen when things are flying," Justice said. "'I'm going to go back and change it. The bill doesn't give local governments enough control."

A bill that favors boating groups over manatee advocates. Lawmakers originally tried to divert the state funds that pay for manatee research but backed off. Instead, they passed a bill that takes a swipe at a nonprofit group, the Save the Manatee Club.

The bill takes the group out of its advisory role on how money from the Save the Manatee license plate is spent, and creates a new state Office of Boating. Boating groups have been fighting slow-speed zones and other restrictions designed to protect manatees.

Two bills that will make it harder for the state to restore Central Florida's Ocklawaha River - one of the state's longest-running environmental battles. The scenic river was dammed in 1968 as part of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, a federal project that President Richard M. Nixon canceled in 1971. The dam remains, and it creates the Rodman Reservoir.

Bush, like governors before him, says he wants to restore the Ocklawaha. But the Legislature always blocks it because the reservoir is a popular bass-fishing spot. Lawmakers from the area say the reservoir helps their economy.

A bill, backed by sugar growers and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, that delays Everglades cleanup for seven years. Legislators ignored calls from some members of Congress who said changing the state's Everglades Forever Act will threaten billions in federal aid for Everglades restoration. The state and federal governments are splitting the $8.4-billion tab for the Everglades cleanup.

Politics around the Everglades bill was bitter. Last week, two Democratic South Florida lawmakers voted for the Everglades bill, then changed their votes, saying they were misled by the state environmental department.

Environmentalists did name a few successes: They convinced lawmakers to save the state research dollars for manatees and fended off a proposal that would have required the state to sell off conservation property in counties where more than half the land is government-owned. Lawmakers also didn't touch money set aside for the state's Florida Forever land-buying program. But it's unclear what will happen to conservation dollars during the upcoming special session to decide the budget.

[Last modified May 4, 2003, 01:46:30]


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