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Latvala led foes of the anti-environment measures

Republican moderates are credited with defeating anti-environment bills near the end of the session.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 7, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Ask Florida Audubon lobbyist Charles Lee what helped turn the 2000 Legislature from an environmental disaster into an environmental win, and he grins.

"Three lawmakers really helped kill all the bad environmental bills," Lee says, "And their names are Latvala, Latvala, and Latvala."

Jack Latvala, the Palm Harbor Republican who is Senate majority leader, led the opposition to anti-environment legislation that died in the closing hours of the legislative session. He was joined by a handful of moderate Senate Republicans who stymied agriculture and development interests.

"He's a bulldog," Sierra Club lobbyist Susie Caplowe said.

Business lobbyists called him something else. Stung by their legislative defeats this year, they circulated a scathing flier on the session's last day, comparing Latvala to a whale. "Jack Latvala says goodbye to the Senate," it said -- a threat that some business and agriculture lobbyists will work to defeat him when he runs for re-election in November.

Last year, business lobbyists were praising Latvala because he helped pass a measure that limits corporations from liability when they get sued.

"I went from being their hero last year to being the goat this year," Latvala said. "I think the more prominent you are on these issues, the more you are targeted. My constituents can decide whether I'm doing a good job."

The Legislature has long had a deep divide on the environment, one that generally falls between lawmakers from rural areas who want to weaken environmental protections, and lawmakers from urban areas who think laws should stay strong. It has more to do with regional differences than with party affiliation; the divide was there when Democrats controlled the Legislature, and it's there now in the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

This year, three moderate Republicans from highly developed areas worked together to torpedo measures that agribusiness and developers wanted but environmentalists opposed. The lawmakers are: Latvala, who made his fortune in a direct-mail business; Senate President Toni Jennings, a construction company executive from Orlando; and Sen. Tom Lee, a developer from Brandon. It was a case of considerable political brinkmanship. Some of the measures -- including a rewrite of growth management laws, a bill to keep the Rodman Dam across the Ocklawaha River and a "sovereign lands" bill to define private land along lakes and rivers -- had support from House Speaker John Thrasher and Gov. Jeb Bush.

But the growth management, sovereign lands and Rodman dam bills died in the Senate. So did a bill that would have let waterfront property owners clear off their shorelines without a permit. And so did a measure to limit citizen challenges against development and pollution permits.

The most bruising politics -- and the most prominent defeat -- happened with the sovereign lands bill, which pitted Florida's largest landowners against environmentalists. It would have drawn a line in the sand along Florida's lakes and rivers to define where public land ends and private land begins. Opponents said it would have turned 100,000 acres of public shoreline over to private interests.

House Speaker Thrasher wanted the bill to pass so much that it became a chit in budget negotiations between the House and Senate. Thrasher says Jennings agreed to take the controversial bill up, in exchange for getting some of the things she wanted in the state budget.

But Jennings stunned the bill's supporters when she let the bill die without giving it a hearing. Angry development and agribusiness lobbyists accused her of breaking her promise. Later, she said she only promised to put the bill on the Senate's calendar -- not necessarily bring it up for a vote.

Asked about the confusion Friday, Jennings said the Senate simply "ran out of time."

To overcome Senate opposition, lawmakers started attaching controversial bills to dozens of other bills, a scattershot strategy to confuse opponents. A pesticide amendment that farmers wanted popped up on a tax bill. The Rodman Dam bill was tacked onto the Everglades bill, and later onto a bill dealing with cleanup of contaminated inner-city lands. A provision to end tailpipe emissions tests statewide popped up on a tax bill.

Latvala had Senate staffers combing legislation as it came over from the House, looking for anti-environmental amendments.

Meanwhile, Sen. Lee was handling the growth-management bill, fending off attempts by the House to make radical changes to the state's development laws.

"There's a lot of pressure out there," Lee said at one point, waving toward the rotunda, where lobbyists paced with amendments in their hands.

Latvala, Lee and other moderate Republicans warned their colleagues that they could lose at the polls this fall if voters view the Republican-led Legislature as anti-environment. Environmental groups have a grass-roots network, and their lobbyists zipped them alerts every night during the session. From all over Florida, environmentalists complained to their lawmakers.

Agriculture lobbyists brought ranchers up, too, to parade through committee meetings in cowboy hats and tell their side of the story. But, in the end, it wasn't enough. The only piece of legislation their side claimed victory for was the "right to farm" act, which limits local governments' ability to regulate some farming activities.

Lobbyists for environmental groups say they will work this fall to support lawmakers who worked to protect environmental laws.

"We're going to need to mobilize the voters so they remember in November what we went through this session," said Caplowe of the Sierra Club.

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