Disappointments and small wins: the 2020 FL Legislature

Florida's Capitol at night. Source: UrbanTallahassee

This was the year. The one in which the Florida legislature was going to get serious about fixing the state’s toxic algae crisis.

Actually, I said that last year, when Florida’s elected officials convened on the heels of a devastating 15 months of blue green algae and red tide fouling waterways on both the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. It didn’t happen. With legislators now wrapping-up their 2020 session, it didn’t happen this year either, though they did manage to pass a few notable pieces of environmental legislation--something which completely evaded them in 2019.

For our water state, the focus this year was on a comprehensive water bill called the Clean Waterways Act. The bill began with great potential to address a variety of water pollution problems from agriculture to septic tanks, but was quickly watered down into mostly a “paper tiger.” Its 111 pages transfer oversight of septic tanks to Florida’s environmental agency, create grants for septic to sewer conversions, expand water quality monitoring and place additional restrictions on the spreading of sewage biosolids. Those are not bad things but they are not the bold steps needed to fix the chronic water pollution that puts the health of marine life and people at risk.

The Act continues to rely on voluntary rather than mandatory pollution reduction practices by agriculture, and does nothing to fix a broken waterway cleanup process that ultimately fails to include enough cleanup projects to restore polluted waters. Nevertheless, with a wholesome name like Clean Waterways Act it passed both House and Senate without a single “nay”vote.  

There were some other baby steps toward environmental and economic responsibility. For the first time, legislators passed a bill to address the impacts of climate change. The measure requires a sea level impact study on any coastal construction projects using state tax dollars, helping to ensure that taxpayer dollars do not fund projects likely to be damaged in the near future by rising seas. A host of other climate bills failed, including one that would mandate renewable energy goals for the state and was the only one that directly addressed the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

Another small but meaningful step came in the state budget,where $100 million was approved for land conservation. That reflects some progress toward returning to the many years in which Florida spent $300 million annually in a nationally-recognized program to preserve land for state parks,forests and conservation areas. These wide expanses of native lands preserve our natural heritage, provide the most valuable habitat for wildlife, and soak-up and filter our abundant rainfall so that clean water is delivered to rivers,lakes and streams.

Finally, legislators approved a large budget of $650 million for water quality and Everglades restoration projects. This reflects their continued preference for spending public monies to fix environmental problems rather than requiring polluters to stop polluting by passing tighter regulations.

Interestingly, that fear of regulations does not extend to so called preemption laws, in which state legislators tie the hands of local governments by making it illegal for them to regulate on certain issues. In this session one of those preemptions was on sunscreen, as lawmakers shut down attempts by cities and counties to regulate sunscreens shown to harm coral reefs in south Florida. The irony is lost on no one, as a body dominated by legislators who preach limited government and local control repeatedly votes to take away local control.

We are grateful for the small successes, and will push hard to build on them in 2021.

Christian Wagley

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