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Soiling the state

Florida's environment was trashed by the 1998 Legislature. Lawmakers bastardized, then shunted aside, a promising effort to extend the successful Preservation 2000 land-buying program into the next century. Meanwhile, they broke faith with the existing P2000 program, approving a measure that will allow lands bought for preservation to be resold, at bargain prices, for development in Walton County. They diverted resources from the Surface Water Improvement and Management program. And they approved changes in the state's laws on land condemnation that will enrich the sugar industry and other major property owners at the expense of Everglades restoration and other preservation projects.

That's more than enough dirty work for one session, but lawmakers found time to do additional damage. They defeated another effort to bring down the Rodman Dam, which has destroyed the natural ecosystem of the Ocklawaha River. Nothing new there; the Legislature mindlessly shoots down that effort every year. However, our honorables added insult to injury this year by voting to rename the dam after Sen. George Kirkpatrick, D-Gainesville, whose obstinacy has almost single-handedly kept the Ocklawaha blocked.

It's as if legislators weren't content to degrade the state; they wanted to rub environmentalists' noses in the mess, too.

Until recently, Florida's environment was a subject that produced broad bipartisan agreement. For example, P2000 and SWIM were priorities of former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez that won approval from a Democratic-controlled Legislature. But that consensus has broken down. This year, environmental legislation was hijacked by lawmakers doing the bidding of developers, agribusiness and other major campaign contributors.

Two Republican legislators from this area, Rep. Sandy Safley of Clearwater and Sen. Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor, were the primary sponsors of the respective House and Senate proposals to extend P2000 for at least 10 more years. Safley and Latvala anticipated the support of their party's leadership, but they were steamrolled as the session wore on. Republican leaders allowed the P2000 proposals to be weighted down with damaging amendments, and eventually killed altogether. The cynical process left little reason for hope that P2000 will be treated more fairly next year, the Legislature's last chance to extend the program before it lapses.

When he ran for governor four years ago, Republican Jeb Bush singled out Preservation 2000 as a likely candidate for budget cuts. This year, candidate Bush has advocated a 10-year extension of the program. His public change in tone is welcome, but it apparently did not reach the ears of all the Republican lawmakers who regularly looked to Bush for guidance on other major issues throughout the legislative session.

Florida's environment should be a major issue in the upcoming gubernatorial campaign. Bush can best convince Florida voters of the sincerity of his new support for Preservation 2000 by making the issue a priority in his discussions with GOP legislative leaders. Meanwhile, Gov. Lawton Chiles can reinforce the Democrats' environmental record by vetoing the worst of this year's capitulations to developers and the sugar industry.

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