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Tuesday, June 28, 2016
It wasn’t too long ago — although it seems like ages — that sober minds in both political parties, Republican and Democrat, understood that whatever their differences, attention must be paid to the public interest. In time, however, the GOP’s lock on both houses of the legislature and the executive mansion boiled down to a myopic confidence that the best way to protect people was allowing corporate interests to take over the functions of government.
In Florida, Republican voters, persuaded that “enlightened self-interest of the profit motive” was real and not trickery, crystallized their preferences by electing a businessman with no government experience, Rick Scott, to be governor.
Although Rick Scott has a couple of years left on his final term, for voters the Rick Scott experiment is already coming to an end. Gaming legal protections turns out to be a very poor way to improve the quality of life of taxpayers and voters, whether Republican or not.
One of Gov. Rick Scott’s first acts as governor was to axe the science budget and staff at the state agency charged with protecting fresh water resources in Florida. By eliminating scientists at the South Florida Water Management District, Scott erased the institutional memory of an agency nominally charged with balancing the needs of people and the environment with the needs of industry. Specifically, Big Sugar.
Scott appointed members of the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District who had no experience whatsoever or compassion for the environment. The Scott way distilled to a simple formula: cede regulatory control to special interests who had the most to earn by limiting the impact of regulation on their profit models.
One of Rick Scott’s other first steps was to deal the death blow to the state agency that had managed to survive successive, serial assaults by the Republican leaders: the Florida Department of Community Affairs. By the time Rick Scott was elected in 2010, DCA shakily stood on the foundation of a bipartisan consensus forged by earlier generations of Republican and Democratic state leaders.
Gov. Scott was supremely uninterested in the history of DCA. He didn’t care to learn or to understand a government model in decision-making for communities because it included citizen input. Scott took his self-funded victory for the governor’s mansion in Florida to be a mandate for entrepreneurship over treading water with the people: put government in the hands of businessmen most impacted by outcomes or simply do away with regulatory functions of government that inhibit economic activities and “jobs”.
Florida’s shadow government, exemplified by Big Sugar, could not have been more pleased. Scott, as a newbie, needed training. He came to Tallahassee without a game plan or qualified staff. He would need to be brought up-to-speed and who better to bring him up-to-speed than the shadow government comprised of lobbyists and insiders who populated the state capitol, Tallahassee, and reported back to employers in Palm Beach, Tampa, Jacksonville, Naples and Miami. Scott was, fortuitously, exactly what the shadow government had been looking for all along: a smart guy perfectly in sync to streamline their profits by eliminating government regulatory functions to the maximum practical extent.
Prisons, public education, health care, and public safety: from one perspective, what Republican leaders have done is to unleash corporate freedom to create a model GOP state. From another perspective, Florida’s Republican leadership is leading a race to the bottom, challenging Alabama and Mississippi as the most corrupt and polluted state in the nation.
Another of Gov. Scott’s first acts was to cast aside a bargain made by his predecessor and US Sugar Corporation, the largest producer of sugarcane and one of the biggest landowners in Florida. The deal would have put into state ownership, over time, enough land — 187,000 acres — to begin the process of fixing what the US Army Corps of Engineers and Florida agencies like the South Florida Water Management had destroyed: the elasticity of the infrastructure system whose goal was to manage water resources for all taxpayers and for the benefit of economic interests that depend on a healthy environment.
Today’s ecological collapse in the St. Lucie River, connected estuaries, in the Caloosahatchee River, along both Florida coasts and stretching down through the Everglades to Florida Bay is a neon sign flashing in front of taxpayers and voters. When Gov. Rick Scott, Marco Rubio and Adam Putnam killed the US Sugar deal, they ignored the history and science of Lake Okeechobee. Of course, Scott had already eliminated the science capacity of the state water district. By allowing political science to trump fact and the imperative for government intervention, Florida’s GOP created political conditions for deadly cyanobacteria to destroy the treasures of South Florida, including public health and personal real estate.
In recent weeks, the silence of the state has been deafening. Social media sites like Facebook are filling with grim photos and videos of waterways clogged with toxic algae. The mainstream media, late to the story, has followed. Toxic blue-green algae, linked to brain disease in humans, turns out to make eye-capturing video too. Meanwhile, state agencies charged with protecting public health and measuring toxins aren’t even picking up their phones because state offices for holding polluters to account for pollution are now broom closets.
If Democratic voters are furious, what is the word to describe Republican voters in Florida? Losers. Losers, because over a long period of time, they elected Republicans who turned their back on history, on bipartisan consensus and the lessons of the past. They did so with the confidence that insiders and special interests could protect the public better than regulations and enforcement because they get paid when customers are happy.
Gov. Scott Adam Putnam, Marco Rubio, and state Senate president Joe Negron can do nothing about the blight coating Florida’s coastlines except to hold a few meetings, fund a few more planning studies, while cramming as much money from special interests into their campaign accountants as they can before November. It is, after all, a bet they won in the past.