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Butterworth: I won't defend bill

The attorney general calls the House-passed "sovereign lands" bill unconstitutional.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth called two lawmakers "Pinocchios" Tuesday, saying, "I thought their noses were actually growing" while they gave speeches on the House floor.

His ire was focused on Republican Reps. Adam Putnam from Bartow and Paula Dockery from Lakeland. He says a bill they sponsored on so-called "sovereign lands" along Florida waterways is so unconstitutional that he won't be able to defend it in court, and he is asking the House to recall the bill for a new vote.

"There is no way I could do my duty as a lawyer for the state of Florida and defend the constitutionality of that bill," Butterworth said. "It's not constitutional. I hope the Senate will correct what the House did."

The bill passed the House on a 70-45 vote Monday; the Senate has yet to take it up for a vote. Conservative lawmakers are pushing it as a private property rights issue.

Butterworth, a Democrat, has opposed the bill for two months, calling it a "land grab" that would take 100,000 acres of shoreline that are now public and turn them over to private property owners. But he never before has said publicly that he would not be able to defend the law if it were challenged.

Dockery and Putnam's bill attempts to define the line along the shore where public land ends and private land begins. Florida law has held that soggy lands up to the "ordinary high water mark" are public -- a concept that goes back to frontier days, when waterways were the only highways. The bill is backed by cattle ranchers, timber companies and developers.

The political flap has grown fierce during the 60-day legislative session, boiling over Tuesday when Putnam and Dockery engineered a strange political gambit.

Shortly before the House adjourned Tuesday, Putnam rose and formally asked House Clerk John Phelps to withdraw from the House Journal the full text of speeches that he and Dockery had made into the record just a day before.

The speeches were supposed to declare, for the record, the Legislature's intent when it passed the controversial bill. Official "intent language" could pop up in property battles later on.

Dockery and Putnam's carefully scripted speeches of intent -- called a "colloquy" in legislative parlance -- caused a political fight. Opponents charged Dockery and Putnam said one thing in speeches and another thing in the bill lawmakers voted on.

The differences between the intent speeches and the bill could have big ramifications when landowners battle over whether public land begins at the "ordinary high water mark" or at the "low water mark," Butterworth said.

The colloquy drew opposition from Gov. Jeb Bush's office Tuesday. Behind the scenes, administration officials persuaded Dockery and Putnam to officially withdraw their speeches from the record. Putnam rose to do just that shortly before the House adjourned Tuesday evening.

"This is like Pinocchio," said Butterworth, who watched the House action on a television set in his office at the Capitol. "I mean, what are they saying now? What was their intent? Since (Putnam) is now saying his intent was improperly stated, they should recall that bill and revote it. He's admitting he misstated that entire bill. I think the House owes it to history to correct this."

Putnam, an outspoken 25-year-old who comes from a family of cattle ranchers and citrus growers, shot back at Butterworth:

"Now, he's saying we're Pinocchios. If he'd spend as much time working with us on a solution to the problem as he does thinking up colorful metaphors for the press, the state would be a better place."

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