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PolitiFact Florida | Tampa Bay Times
Sorting out the truth in state politics

In TV ad, Don Gaetz distorts debate over septic tank inspections

Florida's next Senate president is telling voters in a new campaign ad that he fought to overturn a "fast one" pulled by Tallahassee lawmakers.

"When Tallahassee pulled a fast one on septic tanks, Gaetz fought back," a TV advertisement says.

That's partially true.

But Sen. Don Gaetz, a loquacious Republican from the Panhandle, is leaving something out when he discusses a never-enforced and now largely repealed measure requiring septic tank inspections every five years.

He voted for the inspections.

In an interview with PolitiFact Florida, Gaetz said he was misled about the inspection requirement by the Senate bill sponsor, and that's why he and other Republicans crusaded to have the inspection requirement tossed out of state law. But the public record doesn't bear that out.

"This bill was not a last-minute, surprise bill," said Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, a member of the special committee that raised the prospect of mandatory inspections with residents in 2010. "I think that's a little unfair — a lot unfair."

PolitiFact Florida decided to dig into the septic tank inspection requirement, which passed in 2010 and was removed for most counties in 2012.

Then-Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, sponsored the measure as part of a larger conservation proposal. There are about 2.6 million septic tanks in Florida, and about half are more than 30 years old, a 2008 Department of Health study found.

Officials expected the amount of annual septic tank inspections to increase from 17,000 to 500,000 if the measure passed.

Constantine's bill passed its required committees with ease, earning just a few no votes. Gaetz, elected to the Senate in 2006, voted against the bill during one committee stop. But when it came before the full Senate for final passage, Gaetz, like nearly every senator, cast floor votes in favor on April 26, 2010 (30-3), and April 29, 2010 (34-4).

Most people who spoke at the committee's statewide hearings before the session "spoke highly of the idea" of an inspection program, noted a 2010 summary of the committee's work.

"Not one speaker spoke against requiring inspections," the report stated.

That changed almost immediately — with Gaetz, other Republicans and at least one Democrat leading the backpedaling. They argued that the inspection requirement was a one-size-fits-all approach and that the price tag of inspections — estimated around $150 or more — was too high during an economic downturn.

Why the change of heart?

Gaetz told PolitiFact Florida he voted for the bill after being "misled" by Constantine and committee staff about the bill's consequences — hence the "fast one."

"Constantine and the staff director attempted to reassure me and other senators that our concerns were misplaced," he said. "The whole Senate was operating under information that wasn't entirely true."

That's why he crusaded against the inspections later, he said.

Constantine insists he never misrepresented the septic tank program.

"All the information was fully vested," Constantine said.

Audio recordings of meetings in which Gaetz voted on SB 550 amplify Constantine's position.

The inspection requirement was added to the bill during the Senate Policy and Steering Committee on Ways and Means. Shortly before Gaetz's no vote during that meeting, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, asked Constantine about the inspection program's impact during a series of rapid-fire hypothetical questions.

"Is this statewide?" Negron asked.

"Yes," Constantine said.

As the Senate approached its floor vote a few days later, Constantine fielded a question from Sen. Rudy Garcia, R-Hialeah: "Is this the one that has the septic tank language?"

"This is the landmark bill for water resources and it includes that," Constantine said. There were no questions from Gaetz.

Now, it's true that Gaetz attempted to overturn the inspection requirement. During a special session in 2010, Gaetz sponsored a measure that pushed the program's implementation date from Jan. 1, 2011, to July 1, 2011.

In 2011, Gaetz said he asked Senate budget chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, to include budget language that would prevent the Department of Health from implementing the requirement for another year.

And in 2012, Gaetz said he asked Senate President Mike Haridopolos to find a way to get rid of the mandate. A partial repeal wound up in a Department of Health reorganization bill (HB 1263), which Scott signed into law. The inspection requirement still exists for 19 counties with large springs, but they are allowed to opt out of the inspection requirement.

In the end, Gaetz basically fought to get rid of a state law that he is partially responsible for. Gaetz says he was misled by "a fast one," but we found no evidence of the bill sponsor downplaying the swath of affected homeowners. Plus Gaetz ultimately is responsible to know what is in a bill he voted on.

We rate his claim Mostly False.

PolitiFact Florida is partnerning with 10 News for the 2012 election season. See video fact-checks at PolitiFact.com/Florida.

The statement

Says he fought for the repeal of a septic tank inspection program after "Tallahassee pulled a fast one."

Don Gaetz, May 18, in a campaign commercial

The ruling

PolitiFact ruling: Mostly False
Gaetz basically fought to get rid of a state law that he is partially responsible for. And we found no evidence anyone pulled a "fast one." We rate his claim Mostly False.

In TV ad, Don Gaetz distorts debate over septic tank inspections 05/28/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 29, 2012 11:13am]
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