Graham, Fla. environmentalists challenge Scott

TALLAHASSEE -- Former Gov. Bob Graham and Florida environmentalists on Wednesday announced a new bipartisan coalition to push for restoring land planning controls as well as water resource funding and protections cut by the Legislature this year.

They also challenged Gov. Rick Scott to help them, although he advocated most of what they want to undo.

Graham, a former U.S. senator, said lawmakers this year reversed 40 years of water and land conservation progress.

“We are in a time machine, which has now delivered us back to the 1960s,” Graham said. “One of the fundamental differences is, however, there are now three times more people in Florida than there were in the 1960s. There is no more water in Florida than there was in the 1960s.”

Republican conservationist Nat Reed and state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, joined Graham, a Democrat, and environmental leaders to announce formation of the Florida Conservation Coalition.

“We’re going to raise holy Cain across the state so people know what they’ve lost from this past legislature,” said Reed, who was environmental adviser to Gov. Claude Kirk in the 1960s. Reed later went on to serve as assistant interior secretary under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

Graham said he was encouraged that Scott, a Republican, recently announced he would make Everglades restoration a priority.

“We commend Gov. Scott. Now we ask for his leadership,” Graham said. “We need strong gubernatorial leadership to reverse the damage that’s been done and to avoid future damage. Gov. Scott, the Florida conservation coalition is ready to join your army.”

Scott spokesman Lane Wright said the governor’s leadership on Everglades restoration goes beyond mere statements.

“He has met multiple times in person and via phone with our partners in Washington to get everyone moving in the same direction and develop a plan to restore the Everglades,” Wright wrote in an email. “He understands a healthy economy is dependent on a healthy environment.”

Lawmakers this year cut Everglades restoration from $50 million to $29 million and appropriated nothing for the Florida Forever environmental land-buying program that once received $300 million a year. They also cut water management district property taxes by $210.5 million, one of Scott’s top priorities.

The Republican-controlled Legislature also repealed most state oversight of land planning, another Scott priority, and gave itself budgetary authority over the five water management districts.

“I can think of nobody who knows less about water management in Florida than the members of the two chambers opposite me,” Reed said from the steps of the Old Capitol.

Joe Collins, chairman of the South Florida Water Management District’s board, said in a statement that such fears about Everglades restoration and the agency’s erosion of regulatory authority are unwarranted. Collins added that the spending cuts have resulted in “a leaner, more efficient agency by eliminating unnecessary expenses” and the district has gotten back to its core mission, which includes managing a massive flood control system.

Collins’ district is the largest and took the biggest spending cut -- $128 million.

Reed also lashed out at the “evisceration” of the state’s planning laws.

“The developers paid for and they got what they wanted,” Reed said.

The coalition’s goals include letting voters know who was responsible for the spending cuts and policy changes, Graham said. Other goals are to promote efficient use and conservation of water and prevent the privatization of water.

Audubon of Florida executive director Eric Draper acknowledged there’s little chance lawmakers will backtrack on the land planning and water management changes during the 2012 legislative session that opens Jan. 10.