Bruce Ritchie: If voters want new energy policy, they need to elect new legislators

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Former Gov. Charlie Crist says if elected governor again in November, he would again issue executive orders dealing with climate change.

But we’ve been down that road before — and it didn’t take us very far. If Crist is elected and does what he says, you can expect a battle with industry groups and their allies in the Legislature.

Crist is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Rick Scott for re-election.

On July 25, after hearing a climate change presentation from Florida State University professor Jeff Chanton, Crist told reporters he would consider issuing orders again on the issue.

“I would certainly support signing some executive orders yet again, if I have the honor to be Florida’s governor yet again, to help to try to address this issue going forward and stem the tide of CO2 (carbon dioxide) we are exposed to and harming Florida’s environment,” Crist said.

After being elected governor in 2006 as a Republican, Crist surprised some environmentalists by becoming a staunch supporter of action on climate change.

He issued three executive orders, the strongest of which (2007-127) requested that the Public Service Commission develop a renewable energy requirement of at least 20 percent for utilities.

The order also directed the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to adopt California automobile emission standards and to adopt heavy-vehicle engine idling reduction rules.

But Crist couldn’t make it all happen without the Legislature’s support.

HB 7135 in 2008 authorized the PSC to recommend the renewable energy requirement but also required ratification by the Legislature. The bill also required that the Legislature approve the auto emission standards.

The legislation allowed opponents, including the utilities and auto industry, to wait out the wave of environmentalism and let any real action get bogged down in the Legislature. And that’s exactly what happened in 2009.

This year, at a solar energy rally at the Capitol in April, Crist said Florida should be a leader in renewable energy. He told reporters that he would issue executive orders and he would have more success with the Legislature — because he’s an optimist.

“And I think if we win, it will send a message to those members” of the Legislature, he said.

On July 29, he announced he would issue other executive orders, including one raising the minimum wage for contractors doing business with the state and another to prevent discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered employees.

Republican legislative leaders, including incoming House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, fired back saying that Crist “is not above the Constitution and the law.”

“Florida needs a Governor who will work with the Legislature and not force his personal agenda on Floridians with the stroke of a pen,” a statement from the Republican leaders said.

That response shows again that Crist will need more than optimism if he wants to change the state’s approach to climate change as he has promised.

If Florida voters really want a different energy policy, they’ll need to make a substantial change in the Legislature.

Bruce Ritchie is an independent journalist covering environment and growth management issues in Tallahassee. He also is editor of Floridaenvironments.com.