For the last 50 years, Florida's governors have been reasonably responsible stewards of the state's fragile environment. They initiated efforts to clean up rivers and bays, buy and preserve millions of acres of sensitive land, manage growth and preserve the Everglades. Developers and agricultural interests still got their way too often in the state's boom-or-bust economy, but Tampa Bay is cleaner and more land is protected from development than a generation or two ago. In just four years, Gov. Rick Scott has put those accomplishments at risk.
Scott has bulldozed a record of environmental protection that his Republican and Democratic predecessors spent decades building. He weakened the enforcement of environmental laws and cut support for clean water, conservation and other programs. He simultaneously made it easier for the biggest polluters and private industries to degrade the state's natural resources. While the first-term Republican attempts to transform himself into an environmentalist during his re-election campaign, his record reflects a callous disregard for the state's natural resources and no understanding of how deeply Floridians care about their state's beauty and treasures.
Scott changed the direction of environmental policy from the start, appointing a Jacksonville shipping executive with "insights on the challenges businesses face in the permitting process" as the secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. He asked the Legislature for smaller budgets for DEP every year except for this election year. But the governor's stinginess is only part of the problem. He also triggered a brain drain among regulators, sided with polluters and developers over public health, refused to acknowledge the impact of man-made climate change and stalled any serious attempt to address water quality, land conservation or growth management.
In his first year, Scott forced the state's five regional water management districts to reduce their budgets by $700 million and filled their appointed boards with developers, land use lawyers and others more interested in granting permits than preservation. That triggered cuts to water supply, restoration and other projects, and led to widespread layoffs at the water management districts that turned them into shells of their former selves. The Scott administration undercut enforcement and dampened public input on development as it eliminated the state's growth management agency. DEP offered bonuses to employees to speed up permitting, and its departing regulatory chief boasted this year that the agency cut wait times for permits by two-thirds.
Scott's political appointees created a chilling culture at the DEP. The former deputy secretary ordered the agency's top wetlands expert to approve a permit that she said would violate state law. After Connie Bersok refused, she was suspended and investigated by the agency. She was later vindicated, and the project was dropped.
In what was a priority for big polluters, Scott waged a protracted fight with the federal government over long-delayed clean water standards. The Environmental Protection Agency eventually caved to the pressure and gave the state too much discretion, a transparent attempt by the Obama administration to boost the president's popularity in Florida during his re-election campaign. In 2012, Scott killed a statewide septic tank inspection program that would have been key to reducing water pollution. He ended a springs restoration initiative launched by Gov. Jeb Bush. This year, he did nothing to push a bipartisan bill in the Senate that would have spent hundreds of millions of dollars cleaning up the springs. He did ask for $55 million in his budget for springs, but instead the Legislature agreed to only $30 million.
The economic meltdown caused spending for the Florida Forever land conservation program to drop by nearly two-thirds by the time Scott took office from its high-water mark years ago. But spending in Scott's first three years dropped significantly, from $100 million the year he came into office, to $27 million in 2012 and $17 million in 2013. Most of the money committed in the last two years has not been cash but permission to use money from the sale of surplus state property. Scott's plan in 2013 to generate $50 million for conservation by selling existing state lands was so controversial and mishandled that the administration scrapped the effort without selling a single acre.
Now Scott wants to pave over his record with a campaign plan that calls for more than $1 billion in spending over the next decade. He would commit $500 million each for springs restoration and alternative water supply projects. His proposal far exceeds what he budgeted for springs and conservation land during his first term, and he offers no suggestions for how to raise the money. The governor also calls for tougher legislation to punish polluters, which would be another major shift in direction.
It is difficult to imagine Scott increasing environmental enforcement when the number of such cases dropped by nearly two-thirds after his first year. Or pursuing a more robust effort to buy endangered land when the land-buying office has been decimated. Or following through on ambitious promises to emphasize restoration of the Everglades after he signed legislation that caps the sugar industry's financial liability for the cleanup. Scott also made it easier for private companies to tap the state's supply of reclaimed water even as he made it much harder for the public to challenge water and mining permit applications. He even signed legislation that fast-tracked the permitting process for gas pipelines and restricted how many times local officials may ask developers questions about their permit applications.
The governor won't even say whether he supports the land and water conservation measure, Amendment 1, that will appear on the November ballot. If that measure passes, the state would lock in funding for conservation by dedicating revenue from the tax on property sales. Advocates say the amendment, which could raise $19 billion over 20 years, is needed to protect environmental funding from the annual whims of state lawmakers. It's also needed to protect Florida from governors like the incumbent, who has no sense of Florida and its values.
Scott wants voters to believe he has turned green. His record shows he has been the least environmentally sensitive governor in the last half-century, and there is no reason to expect there would be a sudden transformation in a second term.