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Bruce Ritchie: Environmentalists think lack of legislation could be a good thing

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As I was sitting in the press gallery looking down into the darkened Senate chambers on the last day of the 2015 Legislative session, I was reminded of how the environment usually seems to lose amid debate and controversy.

The O.J. Simpson trial. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Michael Jackson’s death. A police shooting in Ferguson, Mo.

When these incidents happen, discussion and debate about environmental issues gets pushed off the evening news and forced into the back pages of the newspapers, if they are covered at all.

Dealing with issues and understanding science is lost amid fascination with celebrities’ lives or fear of some unseen threat such as the Ebola virus or terrorism.

And this month, the distraction du jour seemed to be the impasse within the Legislature over whether to pay for Medicaid expansion in the state budget.

The House went home three days early, causing many bills to die:

A comprehensive water bill, HB 7003, that passed the House and was amended by the Senate after the House already had gone home.

Bills (HB 1205/SB 1468) to establish a moratorium on oil and gas hydraulic fracturing until a study is done and state regulations could be adopted.

A House land management bill (HB 7135) that would have allowed the state to give away land to adjacent conservation landowners.

And there was no resolution on how to spend $740 million on water and land conservation as provided for under Amendment 1.

But there was no regret among environmentalists.

Environmental groups said the House and Senate both were giving land acquisition the shaft despite Amendment 1. They’re calling for a better plan when the Legislature returns for a special session to adopt a state budget.

Some of the same groups didn’t like the House land management bill, or even the Senate version that didn’t include the land giveaways.

And while House and Senate leaders described their competing versions of the water bills as great legislation, environmentalists were disappointed.

“As currently written, we believe that the bills do more harm than good,” said Lisa Rinaman of the St. Johns Riverkeeper group.

The Sierra Club and other opponents of the fracking bills were happy to see them die.

“This time it (lack of attention to the environment) was a good thing,” said Kim Ross, president of ReThink Energy Florida. “There wasn’t a bunch of good going down on the environment.”

She said her group now will focus on getting a fracking ban passed next year. Opponents need to persuade about 50 Republican House members to change their stance.

While Senate President Andy Gardiner said there were no winners in the dispute with the House and no reason for high fives, some environmentalists now feel they only dodged a bullet.

Sometimes – for some environmental groups on some issues –distractions, and controversy – and in this case political gridlock – are not so bad when it comes to environment.

But I’m still not sure that the lack of attention is good over the long term.

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment and growth management issues in Tallahassee. 

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