TALLHASSEE -- Every year during the Legislative session in Tallahassee, state Rep. Jimmy Patronis does two things:
He organizes a day for everyone to wear seersucker suits. And he pushes a bill to change Florida’s environmental regulations, like the one that passed the House last week blocking local governments from protecting thousands of acres of wetlands.
Patronis, R-Panama City, is the man who gives environmental activists nightmares — a charming and savvy lawmaker convinced that Florida would be better off if government would get out of the way and let businesses boost the economy.
“I can’t say enough good things about him,” said Frank Matthews, who lobbies on behalf of developers, phosphate miners, boat manufacturers, sugar growers, power companies and a garbage company. “He couldn’t be more accommodating. That’s the appealing thing to me.”
Noting that Patronis comes from a family that since 1957 has owned one of Panama City’s most popular seafood restaurants, the Capt. Anderson, Matthews explained, “When you run a restaurant, the customer is always right, and that is the attitude he brings... That’s everybody’s dream sponsor.”
Patronis, a 41-year-old father of two, says he’s just trying to be useful by filling a niche.
“I didn’t come up here to take naps,” Patronis said. “I’m never going to be speaker of the House. But I’m a damn good shuttle diplomat.”
When he’s able to make something happen with his bills, “that’s where I get a little bit of a rush,” he said.
Patronis, who is married to a real estate agent, grew up in a family that owns a spring supplying water to a bottling company. He enjoys fishing and hunting. When the restaurateur was first elected in 2006, environmental advocates regarded him as friendly, said Eric Draper of Audubon Florida.
But in 2009 he filed a bill that would result in state wetlands permits being automatically approved as long as the application had been filled out by a licensed professional. He said he did it to shake up regulators, and compared it to defrosting a refrigerator and tossing out the food — something he said should be done frequently with the Department of Environmental Protection.
“Sometimes you need to unplug these state buildings and clean them out and start over,” he said.
That bill didn’t pass, but he has filed one a year ever since, and some of those have become law, to the dismay of environmental advocates.
“He’s a smart guy,” Draper said. “But he has the habit of a lot of legislators of depending on lobbyists to do a lot of the work on bills for them.”
Patronis always starts off with a bill containing all sorts of things that the environmental groups strongly dislike. Most of them are suggested or even drafted by Matthews and other industry lobbyists. Then Patronis holds a series of “stakeholder meetings” to talk about the bill’s contents and tweak or amend it.
As many as 75 people will show up for the meetings, with environmental lobbyists trying to chip away at the parts they don’t want and industry lobbyists trying to add more into it, Patronis said. He contended the meetings are key to the process because otherwise environmental activists and industry lobbyists wouldn’t talk to each other.