May 11, 2015

Free bird: Alico's copter, cash put to use on Legislature

This is a story about how to get things done in Tallahassee. Usually, it takes cash. Sometimes, it also takes a helicopter.

Last year, a South Florida water agency ran out of money for a program that pays ranchers to hold back excess rainwater from filling up Lake Okeechobee too fast, a practice known as water farming. A major agriculture corporation, Alico, asked the Legislature to instead use state taxpayer money to keep the project rolling.

Alico had a lot at stake in trying to prop up the water-farming project. If the project were revived by the Legislature, Alico would get the largest contract, worth more than $120 million over the next 11 years.

Before last year's session, Alico took key legislative leaders on a four-hour helicopter ride around Lake Okeechobee that cost about $5,000. On board for a Jan. 22, 2014 flight: state Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa.

Also aboard: Clay Wilson, president of Alico, the nation's largest citrus producer, as well as a major player in cattle and sugar-growing. Wilson was there to show off his company's water-farming plan and explain to the legislators why it deserved an infusion of taxpayer money.

Two weeks later, on Feb. 5, 2014, Alico wrote a $15,000 check to Young's political action committee, the Florida Conservative Leadership Fund.

At the time, Young was the House majority whip. It was her job to tell Republican members of the House how to vote on certain issues. A rising star, Young now serves as House majority leader.

Another passenger on board the Alico copter tour that day in January 2014 was House Appropriations Committee Chairman Seth McKeel. As chairman, he wielded an outsize influence on what would go into the state budget and what would be left out.

Six days after the flight, Mc­Keel's PAC, the Florida Innovation Fund, got a check from Alico for $25,000.

Continue reading "Free bird: Alico's copter, cash put to use on Legislature" »

April 29, 2015

Amendment 1 supporters to House: Do your job

Senate President Andy Gardiner isn't the only one asking the Florida House to come back and finish the Legislative session.

The group who sponsored the environmental ballot measure that was supposed to steer more money next year into preservation and conservation is also getting on the House's case.

Florida Water and Land Legacy, the sponsor committee of Amendment 1, urged the House to "finish the job" in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon.

Here's the release:

This week the Florida House of Representative adjourned for the 2015 session without passing a state budget, leaving  the spending for conservation mandated under Amendment 1 in jeopardy.

Florida voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 1, the Water and Land Conservation Amendment, by 75 percent.  The current House and Senate budgets allocate only $8 - $10 million for the acquisition of parks and wildlife habitat under Florida Forever out of the $750 million available to be spent in Amendment 1’s first year.  Important natural areas have been languishing on the Florida Forever priority list since 2009 without funding.

Continue reading "Amendment 1 supporters to House: Do your job" »

A day late for Crisafulli, his water bill clears Senate

Maybe House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, should have stuck around one more day.

A day after Crisafulli ordered the House members home because of the budget impasse, the Senate passed his main priority, HB 7003, by a 39-1 vote. The bill, sponsored on the House side by Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, overhauls the state’s water policy and regulatory system. The bill made numerous revisions to the state’s oversight of water quality and quantity, including new action plans to protect natural springs that are impaired. It’s most controversial element, however, was easing regulations for landowners north of Lake Okeechobee. Rather than limiting their agricultural discharges via permits, it substitutes a new system that provides overall goals for landowners. Under the bill, agribusinesses and other landowners will be paid 75 percent of the costs in state or federal funds to implement “best management practices”, or BMPs to reduce pollution.

But Senators, by a 39-1 vote, approved the bill by also tacking on SB 918, which includes a couple of provisions the House bill didn’t. It includes an extensive bike trail system, supported by Sen. President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. It was one of Gardiner’s main priorities, and it wasn’t included in the House version. Neither was an advisory board that is created in the Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness. The board would evaluate water projects, ranking them in order of importance and viability. Crisafulli objected to the board interfering with the legislative power to allocate money for water projects.

Not included in either bill was money to buy U.S. Sugar property south of Lake Okeechobee or other land elsewhere that could be used for reservoirs to help clean the Everglades.

Continue reading "A day late for Crisafulli, his water bill clears Senate" »

In Miami Herald op-ed, Obama pushes for climate change action

The following is an op-ed by President Barack Obama published in the Miami Herald:

Last week I spent Earth Day in the Everglades, one of our nation’s greatest national treasures, and saw firsthand what makes its unique landscape so magical — what the poet Emma Lazarus called “the savage splendor of the swamp.” Plus, I got to hang out with Bill Nye the Science Guy.

“There are no other Everglades in the world,” wrote Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who helped preserve it. But climate change is threatening this treasure and the communities that depend on it. That’s what my visit was all about.

Last year, 2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record, and 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century. So climate change is real as are its effects: stronger storms, deeper droughts, longer wildfire seasons and public-health risks. The surgeon general and I recently met with doctors and nurses and parents who see patients and kids grappling with the health impacts. The Pentagon says that climate change poses an increasing set of risks to our national security.

Those who choose to deny science need only to travel to the Everglades where you can actually see the effects of a changing climate — where rising sea levels endanger a fragile ecosystem, threaten the drinking water of more than 7 million Floridians and pose risks to Florida’s $82-billion tourism industry. We can no longer delay action. That’s why I’ve committed the United States to lead the world in combating this threat.

More here.

April 28, 2015

Green algae can be an ally for environmentalists

Green algae just might be the best lobbying tool environmentalists have in making their case that the state should buy land owned by U.S. Sugar.

Last week, a bloom of toxic blue-green algae in water adjacent to Lake Okeechobee led to the suspension of water pumping that had been ordered by the Army Corps of Engineers. Environmentalists want to purchase about 46,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land that could be used to build a reservoir to capture the dirty discharge, purifying the water that drains into the Everglades, a case that was bolstered by last week’s bloom.

On Tuesday, the green algae was on full display during a news conference on the steps of the Capitol.

“The U.S. Sugar land gives us the opportunity to treat the water and send it south where it belongs rather than dumping it on those poor people on the coast,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, holding a bottle filled with dark green water that ostensibly came from Lake Okeechobee. “If they don’t buy the U.S. Sugar land then the people downstream from Lake Okeechobee can expect to continue to get this type of green, slimy, toxic algae water dumped on them on a continuous basis.”

It should have been a good year to lobby lawmakers for the land.

Continue reading "Green algae can be an ally for environmentalists" »

April 24, 2015

PolitiFact looks at one of Rick Scott's environmental promises

As part of his environmental agenda during his re-election campaign, Gov. Rick Scott promised that he would "issue an executive order to provide a foundation for bringing together stakeholders to plan with his administration for additional needed actions."

We'll note that he didn't promise to create a foundation as in an organization -- he put that promise under the header "executive order to protect water quality" in his environmental campaign plan.

We how PolitiFact Florida rated Scott's progress and here is our entire Scott-O-Meter.

April 23, 2015

Senate advances fracking bills that enviros say is 'Trojan Horse'

Despite warnings that they were creating a “roadmap” for companies to circumvent the state’s public records law, a divided Senate committee advanced a bill Thursday that could allow oil and gas companies to shield the chemicals used in the fracking process.

The measure, SB 1582, builds on legislation pending before the House and Senate that imposes new rules and penalties on oil and gas activities known as fracking, while banning local governments from prohibiting the controversial activity.

Both bills are heavily criticized by environmental groups, who warn that the proposed regulations are so narrowly written that they do not apply to chemical fracking, or acidization, which uses chemicals to dissolve rock rather than fracture it, a process they believe is most likely to be used in Florida because of its shallow rock bed.

“These bills are nothing more than ‘Trojan Horse’ legislation that will pacify the public, while forbidding local residents to decide whether or not they want fracking in their community,” said Kim Ross of ReThink Energy Florida, an environmental advocacy group.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 11-7 for a public records exemption bill that allows oil and gas companies to appeal to a judge to avoid disclosing the chemicals used in the high-pressure fracking process, as required in two bills pending before the House and Senate, SB 1468 and HB 1205.

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Amendment 1 land buys in limbo as lawmakers dither on Medicaid expansion

Stuck in limbo because of the stalemate over Medicaid expansion, environmentalists face increasingly long odds that state lawmakers will raise spending on purchasing land for preservation and conservation, setting the stage for a possible legal battle.

Lawmakers have only a week left in the 2015 legislative session and are giving little indication they will budge much from their initial offers last month to provide less than $20 million for land buys.

That’s far less than the $300 million minimum anticipated by the supporters of Amendment 1, a ballot measure that 4.2 million voters approved in November.

“It’s pretty doggone clear that the intent was to acquire more land,” said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge. “We’re not even close. It’s a Ponzi scheme and it will never work. I don’t think any court in the land can uphold that. If we don’t put meaningful dollars in land acquisition, it will go to court.”

Less than six months ago, Amendment 1 passed with 75 percent of the vote. It requires not new money, but 33 percent of existing revenue from documentary stamps be directed to preserving environmentally sensitive land and improving water quality.

Supporters of the amendment say that means that Florida Forever, a state program created in 1999 to fund public land acquisition, should have its initial authority to spend $300 million restored. But the House budget provides about $10 million for land buys through Florida Forever. The Senate provides about $17 million.

One land purchase in particular, about 26,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee and another 20,000 near Clewiston, appears to be in the most trouble. Environmentalists had identified this property, which is owned by U.S. Sugar, as crucial in helping clean the Everglades. The land could be used for a reservoir that captures dirty discharges, improving the quality of water that drains into the Everglades.

But Senate Budget Chief Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said support for buying that piece is waning, a position that falls in line with House leaders who have always opposed it.

Continue reading "Amendment 1 land buys in limbo as lawmakers dither on Medicaid expansion" »

April 22, 2015

Fact-checking Rick Scott and Marco Rubio on sea-level rise, climate change

With President Barack Obama scheduled to visit the Everglades for Earth Day, it seems like a good day to look back at some of PolitiFact Florida’s fact-checks about climate change and the environment including claims by or about Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio.

Here are a few from our archives:

Scott said during an October debate "We have spent $350 million to deal with sea-level rise" in the Miami area and "hundreds of millions dollars to deal with coral reefs."

Scott was exaggerating. The state has spent $100 million to help the Keys upgrade to a sewer system, which should improve water quality -- a benefit for coral reefs. But Scott omitted that it was under Gov. Charlie Crist that the Legislature passed a law paving the way for the money. For the sea-level rise portion of his claim, his spokesman pointed to a variety of projects that related to flood mitigation or beach protection. While those are worthy projects, they don’t address future sea-level rise. We rated that claim Mostly False.

Scott said during his 2014 State of the State speech that "we have invested record funding in protecting our environment." That’s not correct. Scott’s spokesman said that he was referring to his "record" proposal to fund springs protection. The budget for the state Department of Environmental Protection was not a record under Scott. We rated the claim False.

We have also rated several of Scott’s promises related to the environment including about oil drilling, environmental penalties and springs restoration.

In the spring of 2014, scientists issued reports warning about climate change.

Just a day before those reports were released, Rubio said, "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it." (That wasn’t the first time that Rubio had disputed the basic science of climate change.)

A May 2013 report analyzing all scientific papers that address the causes of climate change showed 97.1 percent of scientists’ findings that took a position agree that there’s been a negative human impact on the atmosphere. We rated Rubio’s statement False.

Obama will visit Everglades, backyard to Republicans skeptical on climate change

@jenstaletovich @Patricia Mazzei

In his first ever visit to the Everglades on Wednesday — Earth Day — President Barack Obama hopes to connect climate change impacts already unfolding in the imperiled wetland to wider risks across the nation.

Obama plans to tour the Everglades, as long as it doesn’t rain, and make a speech about the importance of protecting the environment — not just for the planet’s sake, but also to boost the economy, protect national security and guard public health.

The president will tout his administration’s record on tackling environmental problems, including imposing a historic cap on carbon pollution and spending $2.2 billion on Everglades restoration projects. He further plans to unveil new ways to assess the value of the country’s national parks, including a study that shows protected wild lands play a major role in keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. Visitors to parks also poured $15.7 billion into surrounding communities, the administration said.

Obama will also reveal new conservation efforts in four areas of the country, including Southwest Florida. And in a move some say is long overdue, the National Park Service will designate as a national historic landmark the Marjory Stoneman Douglas house in Coconut Grove, which several years ago sparked a contentious fight between preservationists and neighbors. The pioneering preservationist is largely credited with sparking Everglades restoration.

In addition to highlighting his environmental record, Obama’s trip is intended to pressure Republicans into a more robust climate-change debate. Voters will elect Obama’s successor in 18 months, and the GOP field so far is teeming with would-be candidates who question whether climate change is man-made, despite significant scientific scholarship concluding that it is largely a result of carbon emissions.

Among those skeptics are U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and, to a lesser extent, former Gov. Jeb Bush, both of Miami. While Obama is not expected to single out any presidential contender, a trip to Bush’s and Rubio’s backyard will hardly go unnoticed in the early days of the 2016 campaign.

More here.