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Everglades bill close to approval

The new law is meant to fend off concerns about state changes to plans for the cleanup.

Published May 28, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Trying to placate concerns from members of Congress, the Florida Legislature late Tuesday was poised to pass a new law to guide a massive project to clean up the Everglades.

The Legislature's action came a week after Gov. Jeb Bush signed a controversial Everglades bill that delays one key pollution cleanup deadline for seven years. After he signed the bill, Bush asked Florida lawmakers to make changes as soon as possible. They did, but left the final Everglades vote until the last moments of the special session.

The Senate passed the bill, but it was still awaiting action by the House.

Environmentalists say the new legislation offers little more than cosmetic changes. The changes remove phrases such as "to the maximum extent practicable," which U.S. Rep Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, had called "weasel words" that blur concrete deadlines set years ago.

But it also contains some key language that will allow the state to issue bonds to pay for the restoration project. The Legislature provided that authority last year, but it has been tied up in court.

Several prominent Washington lawmakers, Democrat and Republican, have warned the Legislature to stop tinkering with the 1994 Everglades Act. The state and federal governments are splitting the tab for the $8.4-billion Everglades cleanup. If it appears Florida is changing the rules, the members of Congress say, it may be more difficult to get their congressional colleagues to send federal cleanup money to Florida.

The Legislature's action also drew criticism from a federal judge in Miami, who says he will not allow the state to back off its commitment to restore the Everglades. The original law was passed to settle a lawsuit that the federal government filed against the state, saying Florida was allowing too much pollution in Everglades National Park. Gov. Bush says he will not back off the state's commitment.

"The question is whether this will satisfy a federal judge, and I believe the answer is no," Audubon lobbyist Charles Lee said after the Senate voted 34-4 for the bill.

The push to change the law that guides Everglades restoration came from lobbyists for Everglades sugar growers. They wanted the deadline delayed 20 years. The Legislature set a seven-year delay. Bush supported it.

The new Everglades language was so controversial it overshadowed the bill it was tacked onto. The bill allows the state to sell off public conservation land if officials determine that the land is no longer needed for conservation.

The bill also requires state officials to create management plans for public land, including finding ways to make money off the natural resources.

[Last modified May 28, 2003, 02:15:21]

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