Environmental groups digging in for tough legislative session

Environmental groups, which have become accustomed to playing defense in the Legislature for many years, are digging in for what could be an even tougher fight this year. The legislative session starts on Tuesday, March 8.

There are bills filed to streamline environmental permitting, repeal a statewide septic tank inspection requirement and prohibit local governments from regulating fertilizer.

“You’ve got some people who just don’t understand our environmental policies, don’t care and have vowed to rewrite the laws,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida. “We have to keep that from happening.”

Gov. Rick Scott drew applause during his inauguration speech when he described regulations as being part of the “axis of unemployment” — a reference to former President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech.

But which regulations does Scott believe are hurting the economy and which do he feel are necessary to protect health and the environment?

There have been a few glimpses of what fewer regulations may mean for Republican legislators. For example, there are bills to repeal last year’s SB 550 requirement that septic tanks be inspected statewide every five years. That was one of the few environmental victories last year.

In his budget proposal, Scott has recommended eliminating the Florida Department of Community Affairs. He would reduce the number of planners from 61 to 10 and move them to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. He also wants to move DEP’s Division of State Lands to the Department of Management Services, which manages office buildings.

HB 457 would prohibit local governments from regulating fertilizer use in response to Pinellas County adopting a landmark ban on its use during the rainy season. Although a similar bill died in the Senate last year, the renewed Republican war on regulations could give it the extra push it needs this year.

Likewise, Rep. Steve Crisafulli, chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, says he wants to get rid of duplicative water regulations that hinder agriculture and businesses. Rep. Trudi Williams R-Fort Myers and chairman of the House Select Committee on Water Policy, says her panel will take on “rogue” water management districts.

Funding for the Florida Forever conservation land buying program and Everglades restoration remains a priority among environmental groups and the Florida Association of Counties. In his 2011-12 budget recommendations, Scott included $17 million for the Everglades and nothing for Florida Forever.

“As you know the focus is all on jobs,” Scott told reporters. “It’s just a focus on priorities right now.”

Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, and Williams also have filed bills that would prevent the state from implementing proposed new federal water quality standards.

The Florida Storm Water Association, which has sued to block the new federal standards, had been concerned that the bills would go too far in preventing local governments from complying with the federal rules. But the association’s Kurt Spitzer said Monday that a proposed amendment would fix the problem in the bills.

“We don’t want to be put in between a rock and hard place where the state says you can’t do this and EPA says you can’t do this or you are fined $25,000 a day,” Spitzer said.

(Photo of the Big Bend coast copyrighted by James Valentine, used with permission from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)