Florida economy and enviroment in balance?

What has come of the wrecked balance of the economy and environment in the state of Florida—whether it ever existed or not is an entirely separate question—might be commemorated in a gold coin inscribed with the words, “socializing risks and privatizing profits.”

The images of three men would be embossed on the front: President George W. Bush and Gov. Jeb Bush, flanking a man in slightly higher relief: finance chair for the Republican National Committee, past chair of the governor’s re-election campaign, and Florida developer, Al Hoffman.

Hoffman, who recently led a blue-ribbon commission proposing to capture and redistribute Florida’s water supply, is now promoting the effort of the Association of Florida Community Developers to insert a spigot into water reserved for the Everglades. Its lobbyists worked for the Enron subsidiary—Azurix—that tried in 1999 to shoplift Florida’s water under the premise that, if your target is big enough, there is no video recorder with a lens large enough to capture the crime. The public wasn’t invited to their opening party. They called it “Liquid Gold.”

Socializing risk and privatizing profits are a quick way to describe the wholesale surrender of the Florida Legislature—dominated by a Republican majority—to the flimsy theory that the profit motive protects people better than government itself, leading to a new role for government: protecting business from people.

The president of Florida’s Senate, Republican Jim King of Jacksonville, expressed this new golden balance in the last day of the 2002 legislative session when he single-handedly modified an Everglades funding bill and radically changed the relationship of ordinary citizens to government. King’s bill, which Jeb Bush signed into law, strips citizens’ rights to challenge bad development decisions. The hundred-million dollars obtained for the Everglades was a tiny fraction of what the state had committed to—but the loss of citizen rights was 100 percent final, period.

The “balance” was expressed again in last year’s session, when the Legislature helped Big Sugar, again, socialize the risk of restoring the Everglades while ensuring profits. Gov. Bush signed the new law that blesses sugar’s continued pollution through “averages” determined by “mixing zones” on public land, avoiding entirely the requirement of using its own, private lands to clean the Everglades. The Bush White House stood by, mutely.

It’s not that the public can’t express the “balance” between the economy and the environment in clearly understood terms; it is just that government refuses to listen. In 1996, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a statewide referendum holding sugar primarily responsible for cleaning up its pollution of the Everglades. Not a single elected official has lifted a finger to do what the people wanted.

Which brings us to the reverse side of our commemorative coin, which would bear the picture of a sugar farm, Talisman—the 50,000-acre tract in the Everglades Agricultural Area we bought to take out of sugar production and which Big Sugar continues to lease under terms provided by the federal and state governments that the public would never have agreed to.

We need Talisman Farm to be converted to a cleansing reservoir, as it was meant to be, so downstream coastal estuaries and billions of dollars of real-estate values would not be destroyed. But sugar won’t let go. Sugar needs Talisman to make money now, and more later, never mind the risk to the public investment in Everglades restoration.

The legend on the tail side of the coin: “The Everglades, the gift that keeps giving.”

If every Floridian had this commemorative coin in his or her pocket, people might be reminded to call Gov. Bush and Sen. King today, because—with their support—the Republican majority is about to try to make it harder, much harder, for ordinary people to have access to the Florida Constitution through the amendment process at the ballot box.

This week the Legislature will vote on a new bill that has been designed with one goal in mind, although it is not expressed that way: to halt the ballot initiative planned by Florida Hometown Democracy that intends to take land-use changes out of the hands of local officials beholden to developers and put those decisions into the hands of voters.

A groundswell of grass-roots support is moving this signature petition movement toward the ballot box, and the Legislature intends to stop it now.

Who knows what could happen once people get it in their heads that democracy is meant to serve them?

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