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    Measure to limit fines may die

    By BILL VARIAN
    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published November 21, 2001

    TAMPA -- Hillsborough's legislative delegation all but killed a bill Tuesday that would have sharply curbed fines against environmental violators.

    However, Sen. Tom Lee left open the option of reconsidering a version of the bill, a maneuver that means the delegation could bring it up again the next time it meets.

    That seemed unlikely to happen before the regular legislative session begins next spring, though. And legislators, including House Speaker-designate Johnnie Byrd, said they would be reluctant to bring up such a controversial measure in Tallahassee without a local public hearing.

    The bill's sponsor, Rep. Rob Wallace, R-Carrollwood, will leave office due to term limits before the 2003 legislative session.

    "I think this was their polite way of killing the bill," said Denise Layne, a community activist and Hillsborough Commission candidate from Lutz, who attended the meeting.

    Some Hillsborough County officials left Tuesday's meeting at the Florida State Fairgrounds a little uneasy nevertheless. With a version of the bill still breathing, they worried that it could be revived in Tallahassee, outside the view of concerned residents here, and with little opportunity for them to be heard.

    "I didn't feel good about it, I'll tell you that," said Hillsborough Commission Chairwoman Pat Frank.

    Wallace's original bill, submitted in June, proposed a new system of fines for Hillsborough's Environmental Protection Commission, the county's main pollution regulator. It capped fines levied by EPC at $5,000 a year for people, businesses or other entities that commit what Wallace characterized as minor offenses that don't result in major pollution.

    "The original bill was intended . . . to make a distinction between paperwork violations and pollution," Wallace told the delegation.

    It was aimed at curbing what Wallace, an environmental engineer, characterized as a "heavy-handed approach" to policing by the EPC.

    Currently polluters or others who break environmental rules face fines based on a matrix that attempts to measure the severity of the offense, a formula Wallace said is too subjective.

    But EPC officials said the proposal would prevent the agency from forcing companies, by threat of fine, to undertake sometimes costly improvements that might prevent pollution. County commissioners said the issue was a matter of local control.

    Facing a unanimous vote from commissioners opposing his bill, Wallace submitted a scaled-down version, but with an understanding that he would negotiate with them before legislative committee meetings in January.

    Local legislators took up Wallace's amended bill first Tuesday, with all but five members of the delegation supporting it. However, two of those legislators against it were Sens. Les Miller, D-Tampa, and Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg. And under Hillsborough delegation rules, it takes only two senators to kill a bill.

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