Francis Rooney made millions on sprawling building projects like the Dallas Cowboys’ football stadium. He parlayed his status as a George W. Bush mega donor into a diplomatic post. He fended off frequent Fox News guest Dan Bongino in a 2016 primary to win a Naples-based congressional seat that is one of the most conservative in the state. And he once called for a “purge” of career FBI and Justice Department officials during Robert Mueller’s investigation.
But the 65-year-old Rooney is now Florida’s most pro-environment Republican in Congress.
Rooney is the only Republican in Congress currently supporting a tax on carbon emissions, and is one of two vocal critics of the state’s sugar industry in Washington. His considerable wealth — Rooney ranked as the 26th richest member of Congress in 2018 and drew a $5.5 million salary the year before entering elected office — means he doesn’t need checks from lobbyists to fund his reelection campaigns.
“I’m kind of a lone wolf on this from a conservative district,” Rooney said in an interview at his Capitol Hill office. “I’m certainly not doing it for politics. In fact I may be doing it against politics.”
Before entering the House, Rooney was the majority owner of Manhattan Construction Group, a firm that built the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium, the underground U.S. Capitol visitor center and both Bush presidential libraries. He pines for the eventual demise of the nation’s coal industry through a carbon tax, wants Florida’s sugar industry to stop burning cane fields and give up land for a proposed Everglades reservoir, and said Republicans need to start talking thoughtfully about the environment if they want college-educated suburbanites to vote for them.
But he’s also operating in a climate where many Republicans are happy to dunk on a proposed Green New Deal by liberal Democrats without offering a substantive alternative.
At the same time Rooney talked about the need for a carbon tax in his office, other congressional Republicans drank milk at a press conference to argue that a Green New Deal would hurt dairy farmers and Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe wore a tie with oil rigs on it while casting his vote against the proposal.
Rooney’s environmental bent comes from a lifetime spent on the water — he once sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and holds a boat captain’s license from the U.S. Coast Guard — and a lot of conversations with his adult children. He noted that his parent’s generation was OK with dirty steel mills in Pittsburgh and factories in Chicago until the pollution started killing people. He said his children’s generation won’t accept that.
“He’s not in Congress to pass the time,” said former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, whom Rooney succeeded as the GOP head of the Climate Solutions Caucus. “This is someone who’s overqualified to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. For most people in Congress, their main goal is to get reelected; for Francis Rooney, his main goal is to address some of the greatest challenges facing our country.”
The House Agriculture and Natural Resources subcommittee approved a bill Tuesday that, among other things, would require municipalities to address contamination of recyclable materials.
HB 771, put forward by Palm City Republican Rep. Toby Overdorf, passed unanimously.
Many municipalities currently have single-stream recycling programs in place, which means all recyclable material is placed in a single container. This method increases the potential for contamination and rejection of recyclable material, resulting in the disposal of recyclables into landfills. Counties and municipalities can contract recycling programs out to private companies but are currently not required to address contamination of recyclable materials.
The bill doesn’t mandate that local governments do a contract in a particular way and doesn’t restrict the type of items being recycled, Overdorf said.
“This would hopefully reduce the amount of material that is going into the landfills by having the local governments basically be responsible for ensuring that the clientele that’s using the recycling is providing clean, recycled materials,” he said. “In other words, they aren’t contaminated so it allows for the waste companies to have more material going to recycling rather than the landfills. “
Recyclable material gets contaminated when residents put materials that are not recyclable into bins, like plastic bags, styrofoam peanuts and other thin plastics. While facilities are equipped to handle some of these materials, excessive contamination can undermine the recycling process. According to the bill analysis, some local governments have contamination rates reaching more than 30 to 40 percent by weight.
Contamination can happen if a greasy pizza box leaks onto other previously clean, recyclable materials. And when plastic bags get recycled, they clog up the sorting machines and stall production at the plants.
Miami-Dade County has one of the lowest recycle rates in the state. According to Florida Department of Environmental Protection, just 18 percent of total collected waste gets recycled. Broward and Palm Beach Counties recycle 33 and 45 percent of their waste.
The Florida League of Cities says they support the bill.
The bill would require that municipalities address the contamination in contracts with both residential recycling collectors and recovered materials processing facilities. The contracts would have to define the term “contaminated recyclable material” and include strategy to reduce the amount of contaminated material being collected.
“It would be a negotiation between the recycling hauler as well as the local governments and what they choose to have,” Overdorf added. “I imagine there would be a give and take between the two entities and it would work that way.”
A New York Times report this week highlighted the issue, pointing out how plastics and papers from dozens of American cities and towns are being dumped in landfills after a rule change in China stopped recycling most “foreign garbage.” The Times reported that about one-third of America’s 66 million tons of annual recycling is exported. The majority of those exports once went to China.
The bill passed unanimously in the House Federal and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee last week, and will go on to the State Affairs Committee
Counties in the state are already required to have programs that with a goal of recycling 75
percent of recyclable solid waste by 2020. Recycling programs have to recycle a significant portion of newspaper, cans, glass, bottles, cardboard, office paper and yard trash.
After some light teasing by committee members about Sen. Rob Bradley's "most important bill of the year," a Senate bill to ban local governments from banning vegetable gardens is headed to the Senate floor.
The Senate Rules Committee — the bill’s last stop — voted unanimously Wednesday to advance the proposal.
Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, filed a similar bill that passed during last year’s 2018 session, but the clock ran out and a House version was never filed. Lucky for garden enthusiasts, Rep. Elizabeth Fetterhoff, R-DeLand, has filed the House version (HB 145), which is identical in language.
“Freedom is at stake,” Bradley, the Senate budget chair said.
In January, the Senate Community Affairs Committee unanimously backed the measure which prohibits a county or municipality from regulating vegetable gardens on residential properties and voids any existing ordinance of that nature.
The vegetable garden proposal is rooted in a legal dispute about an ordinance in Miami Shores that banned the gardens from being planted in front yards. Hermine Ricketts and Tom Carroll sued the village, and in November 2017, an appeals court upheld a ruling that the couple does not have a constitutional right to grow vegetables in their front yard. They appealed the ruling to the Florida Supreme Court, which declined to grant review.
Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican, voted against the bill when it came up in 2018. She said she changed her vote Wednesday because of homeowners associations and other groups that are not covered by the bill and are able to create their own regulations when it comes to vegetable gardens.
“Sometimes a local government will pass an ordinance that is, for lack of a better term, a stupid ordinance,” she said. “A local government that prevents someone from putting in a vegetable garden in their yard is wrong. It’s the principle, but we can’t have someone’s private property rights impacted like that.”
The League of Cities has publicly opposed both vegetable garden bills in the past, maintaining that the legislature should respect local government’s authority to make decisions on ordinances for their communities.
No one representing the League of Cities was at the Rules Committee meeting Wednesday.
The Senate Commerce and Tourism committee approved a bill Monday that, instead of taking aim at plastic straw use, sets up a study to look at the effects of the plastic utensils. It also puts a five-year moratorium on local plastic straw bans.
The amended bill, introduced by committee member Sen. Travis Hutson, now sets up a study to be carried out by the Department of Environmental Protection. Local governments would not be able to ban plastic straws until 2024.
An earlier version of the bill would have required restaurants and other eateries to only give out plastic straws at the request of a customer.
"I realized that I was kind of putting my own thoughts into this .. it was government overreach," the Elkton Republican said. "So what I did was file an amendment that would put a moratorium but give us a study."
Under the current bill, a local government that violates the rule would be fined $25,000 fine.
In 2008, the Legislature enacted a similar law requiring DEP to analyze “the need for new or different regulation of auxiliary containers, wrappings, or disposable plastic bags used by consumers to carry products from retail establishments.”
To date, the Legislature has not yet adopted any recommendations contained in the report.
Campaigns to eliminate plastic straws in Florida have popped up in recent years. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection launched a “Skip the Straw” campaign earlier this year, and cities like Coral Gables, St. Petersburg, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale have passed regulations about the plastic utensils.
In February 2016 Coral Gables voted to ban the use of Styrofoam containers even after the Florida Legislature passed a law prohibiting cities from banning the polystyrene products.
That summer, the city was sued by the Florida Retail Federation, Inc. and Super Progreso Inc., who alleged that the ordinance was preempted by state statute. The courts ruled that the ordinance was “valid and enforceable.”
Jennifer Rubiello, of St. Petersburg-based Environment Florida, said by putting a stay on plastic bans, the state is allowing everyday items plastic straws to threaten Florida's premier wildlife and waterways.
"As a state surrounded by water on three sides, we should be leading the nation in moving away from single-use plastics rather tying the hands of local governments who want to protect wildlife and the health of their communities from pollution," she said.
Holly Parker-Curry of the Surfrider Foundation agreed.
"If you stop and clean a beach for five minutes, you’ll have a bag full of straws. The impact is already very clear and very established," she said. "We don’t need a study, we need action."
After passionate testimony both for and against the bill, the Senate Agriculture Committee postponed a proposal to ban fracking in the state.
The opponents who packed the committee room Monday scorned the bill, citing an “enormous loophole” in excluding matrix acidizing from the ban.
Matrix acidization is an oil extraction method performed by pumping acidic fluids into a well at a low pressure. Operators use acid to dissolve minerals and bypass formation damage around the well. The House version of the bill also does not include matrix acidizing, and an amendment to add the language didn’t pass.
Because Florida is largely a porous plateau of limestone, matrix acidizing could be the most likely fracking technique to be used in the state.
Michelle Allen of Food & Water Watch called the loophole a "failure by leadership."
"It seems legislators have been duped by the oil industry’s claim that matrix acidizing is just a simple, routine clean up technique," Allen said. "Matrix acidizing is not used to clean the oil pipes ... matrix acidizing uses toxic acids powerful enough to dissolve rocks deep underground in order to create pathways to oil deposits.”
Jennifer Willson, a lobbyist for Conservancy of Southwest Florida in Naples, said it is "not a safe procedure."
In 2013, 20,000 gallons of acid was injected into a well near Naples for matrix acidization.
“There’s no benefit to using all the water that can never be returned to our freshwater supply," she said.
Environmentalists say if the bill is in the same shape by the time it hits the House floor, groups like Kanter — which recently won a permit to drill in the Everglades — could technically frack the already vulnerable land.
David Cullen, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said the bill was full of “loopholes you could drive a truck through.”
Fracking is of concern for a variety of environmental reasons, including water contamination and stress on water supply. Fracking is known to degrade air quality and threatens underground drinking water basins or wells.
The bill does not apply to all types of drilling, which means the rules would not affect drilling for private wells, deep wells or the like.
The first time a similar bill in the Senate was heard — Sen. Bill Montford’s SB 314 — environmentalists cheered.
It had more inclusive language than the House version of the bill, and included matrix acidizing as a form of fracking.
David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council said his organization opposes the bill "for totally different reasons."
"We quietly are able to produce the robust that we need to make us less depending on foreign oil and produce American energy," Mica told the Senate panel. "I wish you would just abandon this effort."
In 2018, the Florida constitution was amended to prohibit drilling for exploration or extraction of oil or natural gas on certain, more vulnerable lands.
Earlier this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis went further and announced fracking bans as a priority after he unveiled sweeping measures to protect the state’s aquifer and clean up the state's water supply.
If a fracking ban passes this legislative session, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection will have revise existing rules to implement the fracking ban.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state Cabinet Tuesday voted to spend $2.54 million to buy land in Hamilton and Lake counties as part of the Florida Forever conservation program, the state's leading conservation and recreation lands acquisition program.
The 83.4-acre property acquired in Lake County includes five continuous lakefront properties as part of the Wekiva-Ocala Greenway Florida Forever project. The parcels, which line Lake Norris, are worth a total $540,000.
The corridor is rich with diverse habitats, including forested pinelands and floodplain that are home to the largest black bear population in the state.
Lindsey Stevens, the land program manager for Nature Conservancy, said since the greenway is in a “rapidly urbanizing” part of the state, the smaller parcel of land is important to conserve. She pointed out the crystal-blue water of the springs, which she said are crucial to preserve.
“It’s an important piece to build this green connection,” she said. “As the land goes, so does the water. We have to strategically protect the land to ensure that our springs are something that our children can enjoy and future generations can enjoy.”
In Hamilton County, the 316 acres “Hardee Spring property” include parcels along the Withlacoochee River. The $2 million property is near the Twin Rivers State Forest.
Julie Wraithmell, director of Audubon Society, said without protecting vulnerable places such as these, Florida “wouldn’t be able to function.”
“These projects will protect a clear spring that stands out like a sapphire,” she said. “By protecting these places, its not just an investment, but it’s important to the health of the larger watershed.”
Florida Forever is the largest public land acquisition program of its kind in the United States, managing over 10 million acres of preserved land. Under the program and its predecessor, P2000, more than 2.5 million acres were purchased.
Both of the projects approved Tuesday show “increasing value of our current green infrastructure,” Department of Environmental Protection Noah Valenstein told the cabinet.
Ever since he started his term as Florida’s most powerful leader, Gov. Ron DeSantis has held true to his stance on the environment, particularly his commitment to the Everglades.
The self-titled “Teddy Roosevelt-style Republican” sent a letter to President Donald Trump Monday, asking for $200 million to fast-track construction for Everglades restoration.
The letter, co-signed by U.S. Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, asks that the president include the money in his annual budget request to fulfill “long overdue federal commitments to restore the Everglades.”
“Florida’s recent struggles with harmful algal blooms have raised the stakes for accelerated progress on Everglades restoration,” the letter said. “Enhanced federal funding to complement years of historic state funding levels would fast-track design and construction [...] to divert and clean Lake Okeechobee releases and increase water deliveries to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay/”
DeSantis, who has made the environment a top priority, made a $625 million commitment to the environment in his annual budget proposal, representing a quarter of a $2.5 billion promise he made to spend on water quality over the next four years — a $1 billion increase from past spending.
About half the spending — a record $360 million — would go to Everglades projects, speeding up a 17,000-acre Everglades reservoir in farm fields south of Lake Okeechobee and remove almost 200,000 pounds of discharged phosphorus per year — a major source of nutrient pollution.
The request for federal money would specifically go toward the Central Everglades Planning Project and the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir. They would also advance construction of water storage and treatment facilities planned for the Caloosahatchee River West Basin Storage Reservoir and Indian River Lagoon-South projects, in order to reduce the frequency and intensity of algal blooms.
The state budget proposal makes a commitment to the cause, providing $25 million to treat the blooms and red tide plaguing the state’s water supply.
"Are we spending money now in a way we can look back and say 'it's a good thing they really tackled that?'" he said at a press conference announcing his budget. "With the water, people want us to tackle that and I'm serious and get it done."
The House tended to the “vegetable garden bill” for the first time Wednesday, as the bill made it through the first of three stops on its way through the Legislature.
Rep. Elizabeth Fetterhoff presented her amended version of bill to the House Local, Federal and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, which prohibits a county or municipality from regulating vegetable, fruit and herb gardens on residential properties and voids any existing ordinance of that nature.
The bill passed with dozens of questions, but only one “no vote.”
At the beginning of the month, the Senate Community Affairs Committee unanimously backed the measure, which was first filed by Sen. Rob Bradley. The Senate passed the Fleming Island Republican’s bill during the 2018 session, but the clock ran out and a House version was never filed.
The vegetable garden proposal stems from a legal dispute about a Miami Shores ordinance that banned the gardens from being planted in front yards. Village residents Hermine Ricketts and Tom Carroll kept a garden, and were charged $50 in daily fines.
They eventually had to dig up their 17-year-old garden, which they kept because their backyard didn’t get enough sun to support their beets, kale, tomatoes and Asian cabbage. The couple sued, and in November 2017, an appeals court upheld a ruling that they do not have the right to keep a vegetable garden in their front yard. They appealed the ruling to the Florida Supreme Court, which declined to grant review.
“They were trying to have a healthier living situation and provide their family with vegetable and fruits,” Fetterhoff said. “This is a property rights issue. It’s not a home rule issue.”
The DeLand Republican added that limitations also curb possibilities for reducing food deserts, supporting the long-suffering bee community and teaching children about how vegetables grow.
The bill does not include rules set by homeowners associations and does not affect other properties like schools and churches.
The main opponent to both vegetable garden bills is the Florida League of Cities. The group’s legislative counsel, David Cruz, argues that each city in Florida is unique, and much of the unique aesthetic is brought about through code enforcement. That’s why Coral Gables looks different from Perry, Florida, he said.
“There’s the ability at the local level to come up with solutions,” he said. “We’re not against vegetable gardens. Our members are not against vegetable gardens. But local solution could be crafted.”
Cruz said bills like this one preempt local laws, and gave the example of a 2013 Orlando ordinance that allows residents to use 60 percent of their front yard as a vegetable garden.
“This bill would void that ordinance,” he said. “It would undo the good work of a city to compromise on this issue.”
Rep. Anna Eskamani was the only member of the subcommittee to vote down on the bill. Home rule is her “north star,” she said, and the smallest level of government understands their community best.
“We worked together at the local level to pass an ordinance that did the people good,” the Orlando Democrat said. “City officials and county officials should bring this up at town halls, on Facebook, talk to their constituents. If there’s a rumbling that folks want this, make it happen on a local level.
She said she would support a bill with amendments that provide clarity on what constitutes a vegetable garden and give local power to defining its size and aesthetic.
“I think the legislature can do its part to help smooth the process out,” she said. “But does it have to rip away ordinances that are already in place across 67 counties? That’s something I don’t subscribe to.”
Fetterhoff said she plans to keep working on the bill as it moves through the process, but fundamentally believes the vegetable garden restrictions in places like Miami Shores step on citizens’ constitutional rights.
“I really feel that private property rights need to be protected,” she said. “When cities start to step on those rights, then we need to step up for the citizens of Florida.”
The bill will be heard in the House Commerce Committee and State Affairs Committee, but the dates have not yet been set.
At a press conference Friday morning, Gov. Ron DeSantis took questions from reporters on topics ranging from his latest appointments to the South Florida Water Management District to Thursday's robust environmental policy addressed in an executive order.
The newly minted governor addressed each question fully but when it came to climate change, he danced around his words. DeSantis angered environmentalists on the campaign trail after he repeatedly dismissed climate change as a real threat.
"We put in the executive over that as climate changes, as our environment changes, as water rises in places like South Florida and there’s increased flooding, we want to make sure that we’re taking the steps that we can to combat that," he said.
DeSantis then referred to the part of the executive order that establishes a resiliency office to address climate impacts.
"To me, I’m not as concerned about what is the sole cause. If you have water in the streets, you have to find a way to combat that," he said. "We’re going to work to do that and I think this office will be able to coordinate a thoughtful response."
At the end of the press conference, a reporter asked if the governor believes the scientists who say humans cause climate change.