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Panhandle lawmaker loads bills with environmental deregulation

Every year during the legislative session in Tallahassee, state Rep. Jimmy Patronis does two things:

He organizes a day for everyone to wear seersucker suits. And he pushes a bill to change Florida's environmental regulations, like the one Thursday that passed the House, blocking local governments from protecting thousands of acres of wetlands.

Patronis, R-Panama City, is the man who gives environmental activists nightmares — a charming and savvy lawmaker convinced that Florida would be better off if government would get out of the way and let businesses boost the economy.

"I can't say enough good things about him," said Frank Matthews, who lobbies on behalf of developers, phosphate miners, boat manufacturers, sugar growers, power companies and a garbage company. "He couldn't be more accommodating. That's the appealing thing to me."

Noting that Patronis comes from a family that since 1957 has owned one of Panama City's most popular seafood restaurants, the Capt. Anderson, Matthews explained, "When you run a restaurant, the customer is always right, and that is the attitude he brings. … That's everybody's dream sponsor."

Patronis, a 41-year-old father of two, says he's trying to be useful by filling a niche.

"I didn't come up here to take naps," Patronis said. "I'm never going to be speaker of the House. But I'm a damn good shuttle diplomat." When he's able to make something happen with his bills, "that's where I get a little bit of a rush," he said.

Patronis, who is married to a real estate agent, grew up in a family that owns a spring supplying water to a bottling company. He enjoys fishing and hunting. When the restaurateur was first elected in 2006, environmental advocates regarded him as friendly, said Eric Draper of Audubon Florida.

But in 2009 he filed a bill that would result in state wetlands permits being automatically approved as long as the application had been filled out by a licensed professional. He said he did it to shake up regulators, and compared it to defrosting a refrigerator and tossing out the food — something he said should be done frequently with the Department of Environmental Protection.

"Sometimes you need to unplug these state buildings and clean them out and start over," he said.

That bill didn't pass, but he has filed one a year ever since, and some of those have become law, to the dismay of environmental advocates.

"He's a smart guy," Draper said. "But he has the habit of a lot of legislators of depending on lobbyists to do a lot of the work on bills for them."

Patronis always starts off with a bill containing all sorts of things that the environmental groups strongly dislike. Most of them are suggested or even drafted by Matthews and other industry lobbyists. Then Patronis holds a series of "stakeholder meetings" to talk about the bill's contents and tweak or amend it.

As many as 75 people will show up for the meetings, with environmental lobbyists trying to chip away at the parts they don't want and industry lobbyists trying to add more into it, Patronis said. He contended the meetings are key to the process because otherwise environmental activists and industry lobbyists wouldn't talk to each other.

"I'm trying to force two children to play well together," he explained.

Patronis' permitting bills are always packed. In 2011, for instance, Patronis' one bill aimed to make it easier to build roads through wetlands and open new phosphate mines and harder for regulators to yank a permit from someone who did things wrong.

Before this year's session began, environmental advocates begged him for a break. But Patronis said he wanted to push through one little bill that would help out marina owners — and "as soon as the bill popped out, people came to me and asked, 'Put this in, put that in,' " and it morphed into something larger.

HB 999 not only strips local government protection from thousands of acres of wetlands, it also: prevents local governments from banning fertilizer sales until 2016; blocks environmental groups from suing to overturn controversial Everglades leases that Florida Gov. Scott and the Cabinet approved with sugar companies; accelerates the permitting for natural gas pipelines that originate in other states; and forbids water management districts from cutting back groundwater pumping by any entity that builds a desalination plant to increase its potential water supply, among about 20 other topics.

Despite a rare lobbying appearance by former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, Patronis' bill won approval in the House 98-20, with some Democrats joining the Republicans to vote yes. It now has gone to the Senate, where a companion bill by Sen. Thad Altman, SB 1684, is also awaiting action.

While statewide environmental advocates bemoan his handiwork, Patronis said he's never heard a word of disapproval from any of his 159,000 constituents. Meanwhile he repeatedly rakes in campaign contributions from all the industries that benefit from his legislation.

Patronis hits his term limit in the House next year, so he has filed papers to seek the seat of Senate President Don Gaetz, who is also reaching his term limit in 2016. He may face Gaetz's own son, Matt, also a House member, in the Republican primary. As of mid April he had already raised more than $90,000.

But he rejects any accusations that he has built his political career on helping polluters.

"My dad and my uncle have taught me to be a good steward for the land," he said. "The bills I have filed have not done anything to lessen environmental protection, but they have made the regulatory process more predictable."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

Panhandle lawmaker loads bills with environmental deregulation 04/28/13 [Last modified: Sunday, April 28, 2013 10:54pm]
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