Gov. Rick Scott has signed HB 999, a bill so detested by a host of environmental groups that they brought in former Sen. Bob Graham to try in vain to stop it.
Scott’s action Thursday disappointed environmental advocates, but did not surprise them, said Estus Whitfield of the Florida Conservation Coalition. He predicted it might hurt Scott at the ballot box when he seeks re-election in 2014.
“I don’t think it’s any feather in his cap,” said Whitfield, who worked as an aide to four governors, both Democrat and Republican. “I think the general public is getting tired of seeing the environment sold down the river.”
Asked why he signed a bill that drew more than 350 letters or emails urging him to veto it, Scott gave a vague response.
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“I care a lot about the environment,” the governor said. “We’ve worked very hard to make sure this is the state where you can get a job, make sure your child’s getting an education, it’s safe, and it’s also a place where we can keep our community clean. One of the things I’m most proud of is the fact that we’ve worked very diligently to get the Everglades, get the water flow increased, get the quality of water increased, so everything we’re doing, whether it’s the Everglades, whether it’s our spring, ... we’re doing everything we can to make this a clean environment where we all want to live.”
The bill that Scott signed into law contains more than a dozen provisions, including:
• Blocking the Florida Wildlife Federation from suing to overturn a controversial decision by 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.
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, who regularly files anti-regulation bills that are strongly supported by various industry groups.
“I can’t say enough good things about him,” Frank Matthews, who lobbies on behalf of developers, phosphate miners, boat manufacturers, sugar growers, power companies and a garbage company, said in an interview last month. “He couldn’t be more accommodating..”
Matthews said Thursday that his clients “appreciate the Legislature and the governor continuing to protect Florida’s resources while promoting economic development and recovery. It’s unfortunate regulatory reform is often sensationalized and characterized as anti-environment.”
Patronis did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. He previously told the Panama City News Herald that the bill merely offered “tweaks and fixes to the process that just makes it easier and simpler to do business.”
Environmental groups asked Graham, a former governor and senator, for help trying to halt Patronis’ bill because “there’s a whole big army of 40 or 50 lobbyists working on the other side,” Whitfield said last month. By comparison “the environmental voice has been a little chirp in the distance.”
But the bill won approval in the House 98-20, with some Democrats joining the Republicans to vote yes, then passed the Senate 39-1.
Scott also signed into law 35 other bills Thursday, most of which were not controversial and passed both houses of the Legislature by overwhelming margins in the session that ended May 3.
The new laws create a new Freemasonry specialty license tag at an annual cost of $25; allow motorists to donate $1 a year to homeless programs when they annually renew their vehicle registrations; allow homeowners who claim the homestead exemption on their primary residence to rent it for up to 30 days in a calendar year; and prohibit people from using electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards at liquor stores, bingo halls, casinos, parimutuel facilities or strip clubs.
Tampa Bay Times staff writer Lauren Carroll and Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.