TALLAHASSEE — Surrounded by environmental officials who served under previous governors, former Gov. Bob Graham forcefully urged Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday to reverse the environmental damage done by lawmakers in the last legislative session and "now lead."
In a rare rebuke, Graham said the 2011 Legislature "reversed 40 years of Florida's progress in water and land conservation."
"We are in a time machine which has now delivered us back to the 1960s," Graham said to a rally of activists and former officials of previous administrations outside the Old Capitol.
Graham stopped short, however, of condemning Scott for failing to renounce the deep budget cuts that led to huge reductions in staff and funding at water management districts around the state. He pointed to a statement Scott made last month, and an opinion piece the governor wrote this week, suggesting that water policy and restoring the Everglades will be a priority for his administration. Graham sounded a hopeful plea that the freshman governor and his staff will see political value to preserving Florida's resources.
"We commend Gov. Scott, now we ask for his leadership,'' Graham, a Democrat and former U.S. senator, said of the current governor, a Republican. He noted, however, that the $210 million in property tax savings achieved by Scott and lawmakers saved property owners the equivalent of two pizzas a year but cost the state the "dramatic reduction in our ability to assure sustained quality water and flood control protection and, yes, the restoration of the Everglades."
Scott spokesman Lane Wright said the governor's leadership on Everglades restoration "goes beyond mere statements" and has included numerous meetings with officials in Washington. "He understands a healthy economy is dependent on a healthy environment,'' he said.
Graham announced that he and the state's top environmental advocacy groups have formed the Florida Conservation Coalition to elicit public support and to join Scott's "army" for a reversal of the damaging policies. Graham also spelled out his concerns in an op-ed column in today's St. Petersburg Times.
"The governor in Florida for the last 40 years has had the responsibility for protecting that public asset,'' he said. "Governor, we call on you with our thanks and appreciation for the statements you have made. Now lead."
Graham questioned the motives for reversing years of water policy to create a surge of jobs in Florida.
"There are over 1 million unsold homes. There are hundreds of thousands of vacant commercial facilities. Does anyone believe that by changing the character of our water management districts we are going to suddenly put millions of people back to work in construction in Florida?" Graham asked.
He warned that the legislative cuts to water management district funding, and changes in water policy, resulted in dismantling the professional staff at the water districts, removed the authority of their citizen boards and "has raised questions as to Florida's long-term commitment to Everglades restoration."
Graham said proposals now pending before the Legislature, such as a plan to allow for 50-year permits to extract water from the Floridan Aquifer, threaten the state's water supply. Meanwhile, the halt to the state conservation land acquisition program weakens protections of floodplains and rivers, he said.
"We have to stop the hemorrhaging — do no harm," Graham said.
Nathaniel Reed, a former environmental adviser to Gov. Claude Kirk and President Richard Nixon, joined the rally and blasted the Legislature's decision to "eviscerate" major parts of the state's growth-management laws, including limiting the state's role in reviewing local land-planning decisions.
"The developers paid for and they got what they wanted,'' Reed said. "It's a disgrace."
He chastised lawmakers for attempting to shift control of water management districts from the local level to Tallahassee. "I can think of nobody that knows less about water management in Florida than the members of the two chambers opposite me,'' he said.
State Sen. Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican who fought many of the proposed budget cuts, said it was time to take politics out of water policy.
"The governor should be accountable, not the Legislature, for water management districts,'' she said. She also urged Scott "to follow in the footsteps of some of our greatest governors who have made water conservation a priority."
Graham said the group will not only monitor water management district decisions and conduct grass roots conferences but will have a presence in next year's elections.
"We want to alert the voters of 2012 as to who was responsible for what happened in 2011," he said.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.