Monday, April 23, 2018
News Roundup

Unlike Latvala, most Pinellas lawmakers mum on NRA lobbyist's attack on Swiftmud

National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer's push to abolish the Southwest Florida Water Management District drew a rebuff last week from one of the most powerful Republican state senators in Florida.

"It's irresponsible to talk about shutting Swiftmud down," said Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, who chairs the Appropriations Committee. "It is just absolutely irresponsible."

But Latvala is the lone Tampa Bay Republican lawmaker to call Hammer out for her tough talk.

The Tampa Bay Times asked Pinellas County lawmakers for a response to Hammer's verbal barrage, which she unleashed Tuesday. Those choosing not to call back were Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena; Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole; and Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.

Hammer, the famed and feared 78-year-old lobbyist, asked Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature to abolish Swiftmud over an ongoing dispute involving lead pollution from a Pinellas Park shooting club that has landed them both in court.

Hammer called Swiftmud "a malignant state agency that uses unlimited tax dollars in what I can only call an evil attempt to steal private property and destroy a small private business." She added: "They clearly think they are above the law."

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, laughed off the controversy.

"She certainly knows how to open up with both guns blazing," chuckled Brandes.

Brandes said he didn't take Hammer's call for action seriously.

"It's a little late in the session," to talk about eliminating a state agency, Brandes said. The session just passed its halfway point.

Anyway, Brandes said, "This is an issue that needs to be worked out" by the local parties, not by legislators.

Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, the senator's son, said he did not want to comment.

Democrats weren't rushing to the scene, either.

Take Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. When reached by the Times, Rouson said he didn't feel comfortable discussing it because he wasn't aware of the comments that Hammer had made — even though they had been reported on the front page of his hometown newspaper.

Rouson was one of a dozen House Democrats in 2014 to oppose his party's leadership and vote against the repeal of the 2005 "stand your ground" law that Hammer helped write and that was later blamed by some in the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

Two Tampa Bay Democratic lawmakers lined up with the elder Latvala in flagging Hammer's rhetoric.

"It's ludicrous for Ms. Hammer and the NRA to think that their Second Amendment right trumps all the rights of the people to be free from lead poison contamination and all the attendant horrors that could result from it," said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.

Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, was more measured, saying that Hammer was full of "bombast" and should leave the issue alone.

Like Rouson, Dudley voted against repealing "stand your ground" in 2014. Joyner, like most Democratic lawmakers, supported the repeal. In 2012, Rouson and Dudley scored a 21 percent NRA rating — three times the 7 percent rating the organization gave Joyner.

The dispute involves the Skyway Trap & Skeet Club. It sits next to Sawgrass Lake Park, which is owned by Swiftmud and managed by Pinellas County.

Swiftmud and the gun club reached a settlement in 2004, just as the Legislature approved a bill Hammer lobbied for that forbids state agencies from suing gun clubs. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush signed it into law. As part of the settlement, taxpayers footed the $25 million bill to clean up a million pounds of lead in the park and lake.

Swiftmud now contends the gun club did not follow through on what it promised in the settlement, and recently went back to court to enforce the agreement — which Hammer says violates the 2004 law.

Unlike state lawmakers, county commissioners are a bit more supportive of Swiftmud. Pat Gerard, Charlie Justice and Ken Welch said Hammer is out of line.

"Normally you'd say this is ridiculous — but so are open-carry and campus-carry," said Welch, naming two NRA-backed bills under consideration by the Legislature. "The Florida House is a wholly owned subsidiary of the NRA these days."

Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.

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