Bob Graham says Florida lawmakers put state in environmental time machine - backwards

Published Nov. 30, 2011|Updated Dec. 1, 2011

Surrounded by environmental officials of previous governors, former Gov. Bob Graham forcefully urged Gov. Rick Scott to reverse the environmental damage done by legislators last session and "now lead."

In a rare rebuke, Graham said the 2011 legislature "reversed 40 years of Florida's progress in water and land conservation.''

"We are in a time machine which has now delivered us back to the 1960s," he said to a rally of activists and former officials of previous administrations outside the Old Capitol.

Graham stopped short, however, of condemning Scott for failing to renounce the deep budget cuts that led to massive reductions in staff and funding at water management districts around the state.

He pointed to a statement Scott made last month, and an opinion piece he wrote on Sunday, suggesting that water policy and restoring the Everglades will be a priority for his administration and he sounded a hopeful plea that the freshman governor, and his new staff, will see political value to preserving Florida's resources.

"We commend Gov. Scott, now we ask for his leadership,'' Graham, a Democrat said of the current governor, a Republican. He noted, however, that the $210 million in property tax savings achieved by Scott and lawmakers saved property owners the equivalent of two pizzas a year but cost the state the "dramatic reduction in our ability to assure sustained quality water and flood control protection and, yes, the restoration of the Everglades."

Scott spokesman Lane Wright said the governor's leadership on Everglades restoration "goes beyond mere statements" and has included numerous meetings with officials in Washington. "He understands a healthy economy is dependent on a healthy environment,'' he said.

Graham announced that he and the state's top environmental advocacy groups have formed the Florida Conservation Coalition to elicit public support and to join Scott's "army" for a reversal of the damaging policies.

"The governor in Florida for the last 40 years has had the responsibility for protecting that public asset,'' he said. "Governor, we call on you with our thanks and appreciation for the statements you have made. Now lead."

Graham questioned the motives for reversing years of water policy -- to create a surge of jobs in Florida.

"There are over one million unsold homes. There are hundreds of thousands of vacant commercial facilities. Does anyone believe that by changing the character of our water management districts we are going to suddenly put millions of people back to work in construction in Florida?," Graham asked.

He warned that the legislative cuts to water managmenet district funding, and changes in water policy, resulted in dismantling the professional staff at the water districts, removed the authority of their citizen boards and "has raised questions as to Florida's long-term commitment to Everglades restoration."

Graham said proposals now pending before the Legislature, such as a plan to allow for 50-year permits to extract water from the Floridan Aquifer, threaten the state's water supply. Meanwhile, the halt to the state conservation land acquisition program weaken protections of floodplains and rivers.

"We have to stop the hemorrhaging - do no harm," Graham said.

Nathaniel Reed, a former environmental adviser to Republican Gov. Claude Kirk and President Richard Nixon, joined the rally and blasted the Legislature's decision to "eviscerate" major parts of the state's growth-management laws, including limiting the state's role in reviewing local land-planning decisions.

"The developers paid for and they got what they wanted,'' Reed said. "It's a disgrace."

He chastised lawmakers for attempting to shift control of water management districts from the local level to Tallahassee. "I can think of nobody that knows less about water management in Florida than the members of the two chambers opposite me,'' he said.

State Sen. Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican who fought many of the proposed budget cuts, said it was time to take politics out of water policy.

"The governor should be accountable, not the legislature, for water management districts,'' she said. She also urged Scott "to follow in the footsteps of some of our greatest governors who have made water conservation a priority."

Graham said the group will not only monitor water management district decisions and conduct grass roots conferences but will have a presence in next year's elections. "We want to alert the voters of 2012 as to who was responsible for what happened in 2011," he said.

Here's Gov. Scott's op-ed:

As governor, I understand a healthy economy is dependent upon a healthy environment. Florida's residents and businesses rely on clean water, clean air and open spaces for tourism, commerce, agriculture and recreation. That's why protecting our natural resources through a stable regulatory environment is key to ensuring businesses are successful and future generations will be able to enjoy all that our state has to offer.

A stable regulatory environment does not mean lower environmental standards. It means that environmental policy will be governed by sound science, not politics or one-size-fits-all solutions. It means that our permit processes will be the same for Tampa residents and businesses as they are for those in Pensacola, Jacksonville or Key West, but also take into account our state's regional differences.

It also means that more of our dollars will be directed toward projects that actually benefit the environment instead of government bureaucracy, excessive salaries and benefits, and costly litigation.

Government regulatory agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Protection, are working hard to focus on customer service, timely permit decisions and compliance by sound rule development, writing clear and enforceable permits and by providing technical assistance and public education.

At the same time, willful violations of our environmental standards will not be tolerated. We will be just as vigilant about prosecuting bad actors as we are about helping businesses comply with the law.

The state of Florida should maintain its rights to protect our environment, and it should be done at a reasonable cost to taxpayers. We are a national leader in addressing pollution in our state's water bodies and have the most extensive monitoring and assessment program in the country. We know more about our water bodies than any federal agency or other state and are in a unique position to craft a solution that recognizes and respects the needs of our diverse landscape. We will continue to work cooperatively with our federal partners as we develop a state-led effort to restore and protect our rivers, lakes and streams.

Florida is committed to moving forward on important restoration projects like improving water quality in the Everglades. The state and federal governments have invested significant resources, yet we both recognize there is more work to do. We cannot continue to let costly, ongoing lawsuits derail our progress, which is why recently I put forward a strategy that puts the Everglades first. We can all agree that the Everglades ecosystem is the crown jewel of Florida, and it deserves our best efforts to resolve differences and deliver results.

Government should be held accountable at all times, and especially during economic downturns we should make sure we're spending taxpayer money wisely. Over the last five decades the state has acquired more than 4.2 million acres, including some of Florida's most critical conservation properties. However, now is the time to evaluate our inventory and ask ourselves if we have the right land in the right places.

Future land purchases should ensure clean water for future generations and protect our state's economic engines, such as military bases, estuaries and tourism destinations.

As we do with other state agencies, we will expect accountability budgeting from our water management districts, which means justifying every dollar we spend and bringing spending in line with revenues. Resources will be directed to ensuring the protection of Florida's water quality, water supply, flood control and natural systems.

The state's water management districts and the Department of Environmental Protection continue to employ some of the best environmental professionals in the country, and we will look to them to help identify creative, cost-saving solutions that do not impact the districts' core missions. In addition, we should look to public-private partnerships to help meet our water quantity and quality goals, while keeping land on the tax rolls and agriculture in business.

Our state's natural resources are unparalleled. It's why people choose to live here, vacation here and bring their businesses here. In Florida, we don't have to choose between a healthy environment and a healthy economy. The two are inextricably linked, and as governor, I am working to ensure our resources are dedicated to the improvement of both.

Posted by Mary Ellen Klas at 7:10:54 pm on November 30, 2011