In less than eight minutes, the Florida House of Representatives cut back decades of environmental regulations.
Friday was the deadline for bills to get heard so they could be available for final votes next week, before the end of the legislative session. As the House sped through dozens of bills, Speaker Dean Cannon repeatedly urged members to keep questions brief, reminding them, as the axiom goes, “Bills are dying.”
The bills only needed to be discussed and amended so they could be debated next week, but House Bill 991, an industry wish-list that streamlines environmental regulations, was immediately rolled over and passed in a 95-16 vote, without questions or debate from members of either party.
An amendment by Rep. Mark Pafford, D-Lake Worth, struck the provision that Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida said was the most troublesome, which could have all but eliminated citizens’ ability to challenge environmental permitting decisions. Pafford had only a few moments to celebrate his minor legislative victory before realizing, to his surprise, that the overall measure would be voted on without discussion.
“I heard we were just going to basically roll over everything [to] next week when we would actually take the vote,” he said. “I know there were people who wanted to debate because it’s a major piece of legislation.”
The sponsor, Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, described the measure as “an incredibly productive streamlining bill” that would help make navigating the state’s regulatory process more predictable for businesses.
Patronis himself offered amendments that removed other contentious provisions, but the bill still makes it easier for developers to obtain permits and harder for members of the public to protect drinking water supplies and sensitive habitats from phosphate mines.
One provision would prevent local governments from regulating rock mines, but the bill would still prevent rock mines from being evaluated as “developments of regional impact.” Sierra Club lobbyist David Cullen said the process is important for major projects like rock mines, which can impact that span county lines. Under H.B. 991, local governments would be limited to “looking at entire projects through a soda straw.”
Without the ability to scrutinize projects through regional planning councils, local governments will have a harder time looking at how one county’s mine may damage another county’s water supplies. It’s easier for regional bodies to bring in geologists and water quality experts, so if the bill becomes law they could be left to rely more heavily on information supplied by mining companies themselves.
As a result, “a vast array of problems will not be addressed,” predicted environmental activist John Ryan, who has appeared before regional planning councils to fight for better environmental protections for mining projects along Southwest Florida’s Peace River.
Patronis said the regional impact process “is really an unnecessary additional step” for mining companies to clear, and that state regulators will still be looking out for the public water supply.
Patronis has drawn praise for bringing environmentalists to the table with developers and industry representatives as he drafted the bill, and for making last-minute changes at the request of local governments.
It will now be up to the Senate to discuss the overall effects of the bill, which according to analyses by legislative staff will have a “significant negative fiscal impact” on the state due to changes it makes to laws governing a practice known as mitigation banking, which is intended to help offset the destruction of wetlands.
Patronis said he would have been able to pass the measure without Pafford’s amendment, but that he allowed it in an effort to win some goodwill from Democrats and environmentalists.
“It’s not a good bill,” Pafford said. “But it’s better now.”