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Everglades action leaves all red-eyed

The legislative blur leaves even the knowledgeable dazed.

Published May 22, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - The state budget isn't the only cliffhanger left in the contentious Florida Legislature.

A final vote on a new law dealing with the Florida Everglades probably won't happen until Tuesday, the final day of the special session.

A dizzying series of maneuvers this week have made it nearly impossible to follow the Everglades case.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jeb Bush signed a controversial Everglades bill, then turned around and asked lawmakers to change it.

They did. But on Wednesday evening, amendments were still flying as one South Florida legislator tried to bring some order.

Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, introduced an amendment that would restore the state law that has guided Everglades restoration for more than a decade. Senators rejected the idea.

Through it all, an army of lobbyists for the sugar industry - more than one per senator - has prowled the halls.

They say the law needs to be changed so they will have more certainty about what's expected of them during the cleanup. Originally, they wanted to delay a key cleanup deadline by 20 years, but the Legislature wouldn't go along.

Wednesday night, after the new Everglades bill came up for debate in the Senate, only two environmental lobbyists were left at the Capitol, red-eyed and exhausted after another day of defeat.

Lawmakers and sugar industry lobbyists have disparaged the environmentalists for being impossible to satisfy. The environmentalists say, over and over, that they don't like the bill.

Looming over it all is Washington.

Congress and the state of Florida are supposed to split the $8.4-billion tab for cleaning up the Everglades. Several prominent Republicans and Democrats in Congress say that the changes the Legislature is making to the Everglades law will threaten the flow of that federal aid.

On the Florida Senate floor Wednesday, lawmakers argued over just how worried Washington is about the bill. Some senators complained that they have been misled.

State Sen. Al Lawson, a Democrat from Tallahassee, said new changes to the law provide "comfort language . . . so that the federal government would realize that the state of Florida was not backing off its commitment to the Everglades."

The final showdown on the Everglades bill, which has even caught the eye of several Democratic presidential contenders, will likely happen on Tuesday, the last scheduled day of the special session.

Just two weeks later, on June 10, the issue will end up in a South Florida courtroom.

A Miami federal judge who is concerned about the Legislature's changes to the Everglades law will preside over a status hearing. He is also appointing a special master to oversee the cleanup from now on.

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