LEGISLATURE

Graham leads charge against sugar interests

 

Tampa Bay Times

A pair of bills now steamrolling through the Florida House and Senate have drawn such strong objections from environmental groups that former Sen. Bob Graham flew to Tallahassee this week to lobby against them.

The two bills — HB 999 sponsored by Rep. Jimmy Patronis and SB 1684 by Sen. Thad Altman — are packed with provisions relating to sugar company leases in the Everglades, making it easier to wipe out wetlands and limiting the power of water districts to control pumping.

Why bring in Graham? Because “there’s a whole big army of 40 or 50 lobbyists working on the other side,” explained Estus Whitfield of the Florida Conservation Coalition. By comparison “the environmental voice has been a little chirp in the distance.”

Graham said he got involved because the two bills “don’t advance any interest of the public, just special interests.”

Patronis, R-Panama City, and Altman, R-Melbourne, did not respond to requests for comment. But Patronis told the Panama City News Herald that the bills contain “tweaks and fixes to the process that just makes it easier and simpler to do business.” Those tweaks include:

• Blocking the Florida Wildlife Federation from suing to overturn a controversial decision by Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet to grant 30-year leases to 31,000 acres of the state’s Everglades property to two major sugar companies.

• Preventing water management districts from cutting back groundwater pumping by any entity that builds a desalination plant to increase its potential water supply. “I don’t think we should be tying the hands of the water management districts to better promote conservation of water,” Graham said.

• Speeding up the permitting for natural gas pipelines that originate in other states, such as the new 700-mile one from Alabama that’s being planned by Florida Power & Light.

• Forbidding cities from asking an applicant more than three times for additional information before approving development permits.

• Preventing local governments from regulating the destruction of wetlands by drainage districts, small independent agencies that were first created in 1913.

That item is specifically aimed at quelling a dispute in the Orlando area, according to Patronis. But Whitfield said there are so many drainage districts across the state that they control more than 100,000 acres, which puts a wide swath of the state’s remaining wetlands in jeopardy.

Also, an amendment added to the House version Tuesday would prevent local governments from enacting their own pollution-fighting rules against summertime sales of fertilizer until at least 2016. Local governments such as Pinellas County that have already imposed such bans would be allowed to continue enforcing their rules.

Patronis has repeatedly filed similar bills aimed at making state regulations more favorable to business. Environmental groups had asked him not file another such bill this year, Patronis told his local paper, but he ignored them because “I didn’t come up to take naps in the afternoon; I like to work hard.”

Patronis’ version of the bill has already reached the House floor and could be voted on this week. Altman’s passed its final committee stop Tuesday.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com

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