Saturday, May 7, 2011

Session could have been worse but it was still bad, environmentalists say

The Florida legislative session went off track early Saturday, taking several bills with it that were supported by business and industry groups and opposed by environmentalists.

But environmentalists were not in a celebratory mood as the Legislature passed bills gutting state growth management and placing the burden of proof on those who file legal challenges against state permits.

"It was not as bad at the end as we were afraid it might be," Sierra Club lobbyist David Cullen said.

Audubon of Florida said the Legislature passed measures that were rejected as too extreme by Gov. Jeb Bush, who served from 1999 to 2007.

“The legislature rolled back protections, decades in the making, which were intended to ensure the water flowing into the Everglades, our lakes, rivers and streams is clean and safe for our children and families," said Charles Lee, Audubon of Florida's director of advocacy.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce hailed the session for its rollback on taxes and regulations, including growth management reform. The chamber said the legislative actions would produce jobs for the state.

The House and Senate approved a budget conforming bill that includes sweeping changes to the state's 25-year-old growth management system, largely removing state oversight of most local land-use decisions.

The $70-billion state budget includes nearly $30 million for Everglades restoration, down from $200 million a year prior to 2009. The Florida Forever land-buying program receives $305 million, but only from the sale of surplus land that is no longer needed for conservation.

The HB 7129 growth management bill was amended by the Senate and returned to the House where it died. But growth management also was contained in the HB 7207 budget conforming bill that passed both chambers and was headed to the governor.

Some Republicans and Democrats in the Senate complained about taking up substantial law changes in budget bills, which cannot be amended before they are voted on. The Republican leadership in the House rejected a Democratic rule challenge on the strategy.

"It's a very dangerous precedent to set when you have a budget conforming bill coming back as a conference report that is totally unrelated to the bill we passed," said Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West and House Democratic leader.

The push-back against conforming bills in the Senate led to a 30-6 vote that killed a bill to deregulate the interior design profession. That led to retaliation by the House and the breakdown in cooperation between the chambers. The House passed the budget and a tax relief bill, which the Senate also passed before adjourning the session at about 3:35 a.m. on Saturday.

HB 991, the streamlined permitting bill, died without action by the Senate. The Senate version of the bill, SB 1404, was never heard in a committee.

But a provision of HB 991 that raised the most concerns with environmentalists passed the House and Senate on Thursday as part of HB 993. That rulemaking bill is now headed to the governor.

A bill that environmental groups said would make it easier for farmers to destroy wetlands or cause flooding on neighboring property is heading to the governor.

Florida Farm Bureau and other agriculture groups said HB 421 is needed because of court rulings that eroded a 1984 law that says farms are not required to get water management district permits. The bill leaves it up to state agriculture officials to determine what are exempted farm activities.

The Legislature also considered repealing the septic tank inspection requirement that passed last year as the centerpiece of SB 550, the water quality bill. The Florida Department of Health estimates that 10 percent of the state's estimated 2.7 million septic tanks are failing.

But the House and Senate took different paths towards the repeal. HB 13 would have simply repealed the requirement while allowing local inspection programs to remain. SB 1698 would have repealed the requirement but required inspections in 14 counties with larger "first-magnitude" springs and would have allowed local programs only with some restrictions.

HB 13 passed the House 110-3 on April 15. But it died in the Senate Rules Committee. The Senate bill died on the special order calendar.

That could mean that the septic tank inspections will be required beginning July 1. But DOH probably would need to resume rulemaking and may need approval from Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature to proceed.

A once controversial fertilizer bill failed to pass -- HB 457 -- but its text was included in HB 7215, a Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services bill.

HB 457 originally prohibited local governments from regulating fertilizer. But opposition faded after it was amended to allow existing local ordinances in place before July 1 to remain in effect. 

The House and Senate adopted SB 2142, a budget conforming bill that cuts $210 million, or about 30 percent of the property tax revenue from the state's water management districts. The Senate voted 38-1 and the House voted 83-34.

HB 613, which would have delayed a deadline for South Florida utilities to upgrade wastewater discharges into the Atlantic Ocean, also was never taken up by the Senate. The bill passed the House 93-18 on April 15. 

The bill would have delayed the 2018 deadline by five years for sewage plants in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to upgrade treatment. The Florida Coastal & Ocean Coalition and the Sierra Club opposed the extensions, which supporters said would save $4 billion alone for Miami-Dade County ratepayers.

A bill that would prohibit local governments from implementing federal water quality standards also died in Senate messages. HB 239 was a response to numeric nutrient criteria adopted in December by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

Bills to encourage renewable energy bill allowing utilities to charge customers $375 million for renewable energy projects over five years died last week. That's the third straight year that a major renewable energy bill failed.

(Photo and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission which can be obtained at .)

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