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Chiles muffs a chance

In declining to veto one of the 1991 Legislature's dirtiest tricks, Gov. Lawton Chiles has accepted more than just a bailout for oil polluters. He also has muffed a chance to discourage lawmakers from exploiting the legislative process to enact special favors within laws of larger good. That's precisely what happened in the final hours of this year's Legislature. A bill increasing regulatory fees on developers was suddenly and mysteriously linked to a bailout plan for oil and gas tank operators. The original bill was a priority for the Department of Environmental Regulation (DER), which wanted to make developers pay more of the true cost of regulation. The bailout amendment was a priority for Rep. Chuck Smith, D-Brooksville, whose Brooksville fuel storage plant was under DER violation and had been denied state cleanup money.

The maneuver goes like this: Lobbyists wait until the waning hours of the legislative session, clutching amendments that will serve their clients. They find a bill everyone seems to like and a lawmaker who will make the connection between the two. Then they pass it while no one's looking and laugh when the governor is forced to accept the self-interest with the public interest.

In this case, the lobbyist was the Petroleum Marketers Association, which counts Smith as a member. The bill was the DER permit-fee changes. The lawmaker was Rep. Everett Kelly, who is speaker pro tem and a friend of Smith. The only thing wrong with the script was that the oil marketers seriously underestimated DER secretary Carol Browner.

Browner, who worked during the session to try to blunt the bill's damage to oil cleanup efforts, apparently was supposed to play along. Instead, she took the finished product and sent it to her staff for analysis. The findings were enough to turn anyone's stomach. As a sample, the bill would:

Let polluters who have committed major violations of environmental law get state cleanup money, up to $1-million each. To qualify, they must only be in "substantial compliance" with the law or "making a good faith effort to achieve and maintain compliance."

Put the state in the position of paying an oil operator to clean up violations that might otherwise be subject to enforcement action. DER might have to pay if the owner showed such action was in "the state's interest."

Extend qualifying dates for state cleanup of abandoned tanks, while at the same time removing many of the restrictions on the cleanup money. An owner who was responsible for contamination could sell the land to someone else who could then qualify the tanks as "abandoned" and get state money.

Apply the more lax qualifications for state cleanup money retroactively, to every case since Jan. 1, 1989. Says DER: "The potential effect is to reopen every denial of third-party liability or restoration coverage . . . since the program was created."

It is unclear how the Legislature as a whole could have tolerated such an orgy of oil self-interest, but what is clear is that Browner did not. She advised Chiles to veto the bill even though it contained other provisions she supported. Regrettably, Chiles let it become law instead.

The governor contends other provisions, notably the creation of a pollution prevention council consisting of state agency heads and some $4-million in fee increases, are worth the risk of letting the special interest provisions become law. Chiles said he will ask the 1992 Legislature to correct them and has already assigned Browner to draft a new bill.

The oil lobbyists have to be laughing themselves silly at that. Does Chiles think they'll just roll over and let him pass a new bill? Despite 30 years in the state Legislature and Congress, has he forgotten how much harder it is to pass a bill than to stop it in its tracks?

The governor's excuse might be more persuasive if it did not contrast so completely with his recent veto of the civil rights enforcement bill. In that case, he let his distaste for lawyers' fees overcome his objections to discrimination in the work place. As with the oil bill, he promised to work for better legislation next year. Lobbyists for the status quo will no doubt spend the winter comparing notes.