Ryan Smart: To fix Florida’s natural environment, fix our political environment

ryansmart oped In: Ryan Smart: To fix Florida’s natural environment, fix our political environment | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. (OSFR) | Protecting the Santa Fe River*

Florida’s natural environment is collapsing because our political environment is broken. To fix one, we need to fix the other.

Ryan Smart speaks the truth.  The disaster that is the abuse of our environment is echoed one hundred times over by the greed and stupidity of our politicians.

Read the original article here in the Gainesville Sun.

Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-

Ryan Smart: To fix Florida’s natural environment, fix our political environment

The recent dueling opinion pieces by political consultant Brian Eastman and state Rep. Chuck Clemons illustrate why Florida’s natural and political environments are impaired and getting worse.

To summarize, Eastman argues that Republicans are bad, but have duped voters into believing they are good for the environment. In response, Clemons contends that no, Republicans are good, but Democrats have duped voters into believing the environment is bad. They both miss the point.

To Eastman, the practice of conservation is at its core conservative. I know Republicans in office today from local government to the state Senate who have, against the interests that dominate their party, made protecting Florida’s environment a cornerstone of their careers. Not because it is politically popular; but because it is the right thing to do.

That said, no one is being fooled into thinking that the Florida Republican Party is on the side of the environment. The truth is, too few voters prioritize the environment over other factors when voting. How else do you explain Rick Scott winning three statewide elections?

To Clemons, Florida’s environment is not getting better. It is getting much worse. Florida’s springs are on the verge of collapse due to excessive nutrient loading and groundwater pumping. Toxic red tide and blue-green algae outbreaks are now the norm from Estero Bay to the St. Johns River. At the same time, Florida is losing, on average, 10 acres of natural and working lands every hour.

Lukewarm quotes from a handful of “environmental” sycophants doesn’t change the fact that this was the worst legislative session for Florida’s environment since 2011. Throwing a billion dollars of taxpayer money at a crisis caused by private industry and a broken regulatory system is not going to solve the problem. It’s also not very conservative.

Florida’s natural environment is collapsing because our political environment is broken. To fix one, we need to fix the other.

To begin with, we need to acknowledge that Florida is no longer a small rural state that can get by with a part-time Legislature. Florida has 20 million more residents than South Dakota, but our legislatures are each in session for about 38 days a year. There is no way to conduct the business of the third-largest state in the nation in 38 days.

Second, gerrymandering and closed primaries have radicalized the Legislature. Most races are decided in the primaries, which are only open to registered members of each party. (Independents can’t vote.)

This incentivizes elected officials to run and govern on the extreme edges of public opinion. Our government is thus more divided, the role of the minority party is diminished and the moderate majority goes largely unrepresented in Tallahassee.

Third, despite the best of intentions, the eight-year term-limit for legislators has been a failed experiment in good government. Term limits have increased the power of lobbyists, reduced expertise among elected officials, sped up the revolving door from legislator to lobbyist and incentivized each incoming class to be more radical than the one before.

Last, the Florida Legislature is ruled by a dozen or so lawmakers, led by the Senate president and the speaker of the House, who use administrative and political tools to control legislators from both parties. Leadership races begin as soon as, or even before, each class is elected. Once chosen, future presiding officers can influence votes and committee actions for years before ascending, as lesser legislators jockey for key committee chairs and assignments which they will hand out.

If anyone doubts their power, just look at the scandalous 39-1 vote in the Florida Senate for legislation creating three new toll roads through sensitive rural areas. The bill, which was opposed by every legitimate environmental group and most newspapers, was a top priority of Republican Senate President Bill Galvano. Under pressure from Galvano all but one senator voted in favor of this terrible legislation.

These problems won’t be easy to fix, but we must do something to cure the disease and not just (fail to) treat the symptoms.

Of course, alternatively, the Legislature could fully fund Florida Forever, establish meaningful regulations on human waste and agricultural pollution, prohibit new consumptive use permits in depleted springsheds and restore state growth management planning.

But they won’t, unless we make them.

Ryan Smart is executive director of the Florida Springs Council and was named 2017 Young Floridian of the Year by the University of Florida’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service.

*File photo of Silver Springs

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