Editorial: Glades bill a giveaway to polluters

An Everglades bill speeding through the Legislature is a giveaway to polluters.
An Everglades bill speeding through the Legislature is a giveaway to polluters.
Published March 28, 2013

The Everglades bill speeding through the Legislature is not the sweeping victory that the unusual alliance behind it — the governor, his fellow Republicans, farmers and environmentalists — would have Floridians believe. The legislation awaiting Senate approval is better than a terrible version that sailed through the House, but it still unfairly shifts the costs for cleaning up the Everglades from the agriculture industry to the taxpayers. This is a handout to those who are causing the problem, and it violates the voters' intent behind the "Polluter Pays" protection in the Florida Constitution.

The legislation seeks to enshrine Gov. Rick Scott's agreement with the federal government for the state to spend $880 million over 12 years on stormwater treatment and water storage to intercept farm runoff before the pollutants filter south into the Everglades. That would curb further environmental damage to an ecosystem that is vital to South Florida's drinking water needs and to the state's economy. But the agriculture industry and its legislative allies pushed further. An earlier House version limited the state's ability to enforce water discharge permits. And it did away with a long-established agreement that held the cleanup effort as a shared responsibility between the farming community and the public.

The Senate brokered a deal last week that removed some of the worst parts of the House bill. It dropped provisions that cleared the way for farmers to violate antidumping rules. But the compromise legislation still retains an egregious sellout to the industry: language that would cap its contribution to the Everglades cleanup effort.

The bill says that more responsible farming practices and the industry's payment of an existing agriculture tax would fulfill the industry's obligation for the cleanup under Florida's "Polluter Pays" constitutional amendment. While the Senate bill would extend the growers' tax at a higher rate than current law, the change would raise less than $93 million in additional funds. That is hardly adequate given the $880 million price tag, especially since the Constitution holds that polluters "shall be primarily responsible" for the cleanup, and given that the industry accounts for two-thirds of the pollution entering the Everglades.

Environmental advocates defended their support of the deal by pointing to an uphill climb in the Legislature and noting that the "Polluter Pays" changes could be challenged in court. But there was no need to cave on one of the governor's priorities so early in the legislative session. At best, the "Polluter Pays" cap creates a new legal and financial hurdle for holding farmers to account by forcing opponents to fight the legislation in court. And why would the state want to limit the industry's responsibility when the entire plan depends on future governors and legislators continuing to set aside money every year? This is a bad deal, and moving the cleanup forward cannot mask that taxpayers are poised to pay mightily again for a well-protected industry that refuses to take full responsibility for the damage it has caused to the Everglades.