Free Market Florida wants to get rid of the EPA’s proposed numeric nutrient criteria, a set of water pollution standards that would govern waste in Florida waterways. The group has already launched a campaign against the rules, and its executive director has been making the rounds on the radio and in newspapers.
But who exactly is behind Free Market Florida?
Though it remains currently unclear, the likely answer stems from another question: Who stands to benefit from the abandonment of the EPA’s nutrient criteria?
The Florida Chamber of Commerce has teamed up with the group in the past when it was known by another name.
As The Florida Independent’s Travis Pillow reported last month:
Free Market Florida describes itself as “a project of Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy, Inc., a 501(c)(4) organization.”
A political committee, also called Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy, last year ran the campaign against Amendment 4 — aka “Hometown Democracy” — and disbanded in January. A 501(c)(4) is a nonprofit organization that is allowed to lobby and run campaign ads without disclosing its donors. The new group’s address is listed as 610 South Blvd., Tampa, the home of dozens of political committees that operate in Florida and nationwide.
Last week, while a guest on a Jacksonville NPR-affiliate radio show, Houck called the EPA’s numeric nutrient criteria a “one-size-fits-all sledgehammer approach,” a phrase identical to one issued by the Chamber of Commerce in a statement to the Independent.
“Florida already has launched a multi-billion hurricane tax looming, and we don’t need the uncertainty of numeric nutrient criteria,” Chamber representative Edie Ousley said. “We support Florida’s scientific approach over Washington’s one-size-fits-all sledgehammer approach any day of the week.”
In a letter to the group’s supporters, which is displayed prominently on Free Market’s homepage, Chamber President Mark Wilson writes that “the interest groups that backed Amendment 4 are not standing down. In fact, even now, they are waging an aggressive war on multiple fronts to halt Florida’s risk-takers, innovators, and entrepreneurs in their tracks.”
When asked for details about its ties to Free Market Florida, the Florida Chamber didn’t offer a direct answer but did compare the fight against nutrient criteria to the fight against Amendment 4.
“Our long-term plan for Florida’s future includes working to preserve our quality of life and to create sustainable communities,” said Ousley. “Responsible long-term planning is the best approach to economic black holes such as the so-called ‘Hometown Democracy’ and numeric nutrient criteria — fancy names for economic disasters.”
According to Ousley, the criteria go against the Chamber’s efforts to bring more jobs to Florida:
The Florida Chamber has launched a long-term pro-Florida, pro-jobs effort to counter those who think no job growth is the only way to protect our environment. “Hometown Democracy” would have caused sprawl and cost us jobs. The EPA’s numeric nutrient criteria singles out Florida and will drive up the cost of living.”
In a recent op-ed published in the Orlando Sentinel, Houck elaborated on his staunch opposition to the nutrient criteria, saying that Florida needs a healthy economy in order to have a healthy environment.
“Lately, it has been fashionable for environmentalists to point out that a healthy environment is an important part of a healthy economy. On this, we agree — whole-heartedly,” Houck wrote. “Unfortunately, it has seldom been fashionable for environmentalists to accept the reality that a robust economy is the best — and perhaps, the only way — to fund important environmental priorities.”
Environmentalists have long argued that Florida’s waters are one of its most prized assets and, as such, should be protected as a vital economic resource. Toxic algal blooms and fish kills (both of which are symptoms of nutrient pollution) are major detriments to some of the state’s key sectors, like real estate, fishing, tourism, and recreational boating.
But Houck sees things differently, and says that environmentalists “should be the first to welcome a thorough and thoughtful review of the regulations that have poured sand in Florida’s business engine,” rather than adopting a “backward-looking, reactionary mindset to the measures designed to jumpstart Florida’s economy.”
When asked for specifics about the sources of Free Market’s funding, Houck wrote this to the Independent: ”While we don’t agree with them on much, we do agree with the Sierra Club that advocacy groups are not required to disclose contributors for non-electioneering efforts.”