After getting an earful from environmental groups and editorial boards across the state, Gov. Charlie Crist announced Tuesday he will veto a controversial sea grass bill.
Although two state agencies had counseled Crist to sign the bill, the governor said he still had concerns about a provision that one lawmaker slipped into the bill without telling his colleagues what it was all about.
Crist said he will try to bring back the rest of the bill next year.
"I just don't want to mess up Florida in the meantime," he said.
The veto delighted environmental activists like David Guest of Earthjustice, who said that Crist "consistently does the right thing under pressure, and that's why he has become a hero to the environmental community."
But one of the bill's sponsors blasted Crist for what he called "a lack of leadership."
"By vetoing the bill, he admits there is a problem, but he admits he doesn't know how to fix it," said Rep. Will Kendrick, R-Carrabelle.
What had Crist concerned was an amendment that Kendrick persuaded his fellow lawmakers to approve at the end of a four-hour committee meeting April 15. Kendrick offered a pair of what he said were minor amendments, which were quickly approved without objections, and the bill passed the committee 30-0.
In describing the amendments, Kendrick said one would simply specify which sea grass species would be protected. He did not tell his fellow committee members that the amendment included far more than just a list of sea grass species.
The rest of the amendment called for the governor and Cabinet to allow private companies to create sea grass mitigation banks on state-owned land — something that has never been tried before. The companies could sell credits to developers who wanted to wipe out sea grass beds along the coast, say for new marinas or new boating channels.
Opposition had stalled the bill "and then lo and behold this thing gets added on and wham-o, blam-o, you got yourself a bill," said Florida Wildlife Federation lobbyist Jay Liles. The bill passed both the House and Senate without a single no vote.
Kendrick said he did not disclose the mitigation banking language because the committee chairman had passed him a note asking him to finish quickly. He said rumors that he had collaborated with developers or their lobbyists to change the bill were "completely a lie."
Kendrick also accused the environmental groups that opposed his change of having a secret agenda. He said they were actually trying to doom the bill because it called for a review of how the state's Florida Forever purchases were being managed. He said environmental groups don't want anyone checking up on the money involved in the state's land-buying program.
"This ain't about sea grass," he contended. "They don't want to mess up that gravy train."
The proposed sea grass mitigation banks would work much like the state's mitigation banks for wetlands, which are supposed to restore wetlands on private property and then sell the credits to developers who want to wipe out swamps and marshes for new houses and stores.
The wetlands banks, however, have not always worked out as intended. A St. Petersburg Times investigation in 2006 found that a quarter of Florida's wetlands mitigation banks had been granted more credits for saving dry land than for anything that helped restore wetlands. Even so, they were still selling those credits to make up for wiping out wetlands.
Florida has 2-million acres of sea grass beds, more than any other state, and they are vital to the health of the state's fishing industry.