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Jack Latvala argues revised Lake Okeechobee project defangs its critics

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If House leaders really oppose special interests they’ll support the Lake Okeechobee plan the Senate Appropriations Committee approved Wednesday, chairman Jack Latvala said following the vote.

“When you hear their stated objections that they’ve made publicly, it’s always had to do with losing jobs or the amount of bonding involved,” Latvala told reporters.

“We’ve pretty much removed those stated objections. Now it’s just going to have to come down to whether they’re going to follow the will of the special interests that are involved.”

He declined to name Big Sugar, which has been fighting the legislation, as a “stated obstacle.”

Even so, he continued, “They’re still there.”

Senate President Joe Negron’s signature $1.5 billion bill would begin planning to build reservoirs and water treatment facilities south of Lake Okeechobee in hopes of avoiding repeats of June’s disastrous algae bloom in South Florida waterways.

Speaking of jobs, “it’s probably been a good exercise in this to see that we’re paying prison laborers 50-cents an hour to grow sugar. When most people that I’ve talked to hear that, they just think there’s something wrong with that,” Latvala said.

Responding to reports that sugar interests fear the Senate bill would interfere with already scheduled federal projects, bill sponsor Rob Bradley said the schedule is flexible.

“What the Senate is saying that we now have the financial and political wherewithal and will to get southern storage done. The schedule should adapt to those realities, and that is the new reality,” Bradley said.

“Last night their main objection to me was that it still had eminent domain in it. How anyone could read the amendment that we produced and think there’s still eminent domain powers in there is beyond me,” Latvala said.

“It’s like whack-a-mole. It’s a new issue every day — a new complaint, new defense every day. They just really don’t want to do anything any different than they’ve always done it down there.”

Will it get through the House?

“We’ll see. We’ve got a House speaker who has made a big deal out of crushing special interests — reducing the influence of special interest in this process here. Now he’ll have a chance to deliver on his promises.”

The Senate is trying to work out differences with the House on the Triumph Gulf Coast Trust Fund, which would steer $300 million of Florida’s $400 million share of the BP oil spill settlement proceeds to the eight worst-effected Panhandle counties.

Latvala couched the differences as minor — for example, how much say should county commission have in development projects?

“I’m sure there are some magic words that can be crafted that would help resolve that. We haven’t quite gotten there yet,” he said.

The Senate wants to double the House’s $50 million investment in beach restoration, Latvala said. The extra money would be specifically for hurricane repair.

The negotiations likely will begin as soon as the bills come off the floor, he said. The Senate will take up its budget bill Thursday.

He thinks the Senate has a stronger bargaining position on per pupil spending in the public schools. The House would boost it by $19.

“When we’re 10 times better than they are, it’s hard to imagine that they’d be able to go home with that like that,” Latvala said.

“Obviously, the answer to that is required local effort, and there is a middle ground on that. We ought to be able to resolve that.”

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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