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Bush wants tweaks to Everglades' bill

The governor will sign what he calls "strong legislation," but wants some opponents' criticisms addressed.

Published May 20, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Jeb Bush said Monday he will sign a bill delaying the deadline for cleaning up the Everglades, even though the measure has been criticized by a federal judge, several Republican congressmen and the Justice Department.

But the governor also is asking the Legislature to pass a new bill during the current special session to address those criticisms and "clarify the bill's language."

Bush called the bill delaying the deadline "strong legislation built on good policy." But to satisfy critics, a new bill is being crafted by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

So far, none of the proposed changes have been made public, and the special session ends next Tuesday.

"It's going to be a real crapshoot what the Legislature does on this," said Audubon of Florida vice president Charles Lee.

It is unusual for the governor to sign a bill and then immediately ask the Legislature to pass a new one changing it. But such a maneuver is not unprecedented.

Two years ago, Bush let an adoption bill become law after lawmakers promised to follow up with a second bill to fix a problem he had identified.

But the Legislature failed to come through with the second bill. At the time, Bush promised, "I'm not going to do that ever again."

At stake in this fight is the quality of water flowing into the River of Grass from farmers' fields and suburban lawns.

For years that flow carried high levels of phosphorus, which encouraged the growth of cattails that stifled the Everglades and drove away native wildlife.

A federal court settlement and a 1994 law call for cutting back on the phosphorus levels no later than 2006.

But the bill that passed during this spring's regular session calls for doing no more than adopting a plan to clean up the pollution by that deadline. It used language such as "to the maximum extent practicable" and "earliest practicable date."

One of the bill's toughest congressional critics, U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, called those "weasel words," and U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler, who has been overseeing the federal court settlement, agreed with him.

Shaw and other powerful Republican congressmen, including House Appropriations Chairman C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, said they fear tampering with the cleanup will endanger funding for the larger Everglades restoration effort that is supposed to replumb the water flow. That project, the largest environmental restoration in history, is expected to cost the state and federal governments $4-billion each.

Hoeveler, alarmed, convened an emergency hearing May 2. At the hearing a U.S. Justice Department attorney said the bill was full of "puzzling" language and hinted that federal officials hoped the governor would veto it so they would not have to "grapple with the questions" it raises.

In a blistering order issued May 9, Hoeveler wrote that he was "deeply troubled" by the bill's contents and dismayed it was passed so quickly that it "seemed calculated to avoid federal participation or public scrutiny."

Hoeveler said he no longer trusts the state to keep its promises about cleaning up the Everglades. Instead he will appoint a special master to look over the state's shoulder.

Senate President Jim King said Monday the only reason the bill passed the Legislature is because Bush supported it.

"We did this bill because the governor said it was a good bill," King, R-Jacksonville, said. "If the governor thinks some improvements can be made in the bill, that's great. We're ready to look into it."

"I'm proud of the governor's effort to bring consensus to such an important issue," House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, said.

While there may be some question about how successful any effort to change the bill so late in the game may be, sugar industry lobbyist Robert Coker said it could happen.

"I've been working on Everglades issues 15 years now, and there is nothing like Everglades issues," said Coker, vice president of U.S. Sugar. "In the realm of the Everglades, anything is possible."

[Last modified May 20, 2003, 02:15:52]

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