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The Florida Growth Machine

by ALAN FARAGO

Florida has three industries: tourism, agriculture, and construction/development. These industries are bound together by land speculation, avoidance of environmental regulations, and gaming buyers. The hucksterism expanded radically in the past decade to include the idea that the environment is protected by existing regulations and a (bloated, inefficient) bureaucracy. What is true is that environmental agencies are so brow-beaten by Growth Machine ideologues, a significant percentage of agency time and energy is spent either fending off attacks or strategizing how to avoid them. Florida is the manifest example of government designed to fail; pressured from outside and from within. Appointees to lead environmental agencies must pass the litmus test. In Florida, they are then charged with channeling missions toward allowing foxes in henhouses, opening the gates at night, evening using flashlights to show them the way in. Legislators target budgets and staffing wherever government and regulations interfere with campaign contributors’ business lines. It is the Grover Norquist/ Karl Rove model, and it is poised to come back with a vengeance on November 3rd because Democrats simply failed to explain how these simple mechanics of theft ruin ordinary taxpayers degree by degree.

The environment in Florida, as usual, provides an accurate mirror. The state, a vast peninsula jutting off the continental US, is floating in a sea of man-made pollution; our waters are toxic precisely because we can’t get the toxics out of our politics. This is not a view embraced by the Chamber of Commerce. For the Chamber’s part, weakening regulations meant to protect our air and water has been an essential part of promoting Florida’s economy for so long that most people are simply incapable of separating out the charlatans and cynics who say either “it’s all good” or “jobs come first”.

One example: Floridians believe the Everglades have been “saved”. A chief culprit in wrecking the Glades– but not the only one– is excess phosphorous. This pollution is mainly the result of runoff from sugar fields and cities built in low-lying flood plains. In 2005, the US E.P.A. published data indicating that 49 percent of 2063 square miles of Everglades were contaminated by phosphorous, measured at 1270 locations. This compares to 34 percent measured in 1995-1996. Today, efforts by the EPA to impose enforceable limits on phosphorous pollution in the Everglades are opposed by the state, which has taxing authority through the legislature but is afraid to use it. The sugar barons, exemplified by the Fanjul family interests, are pouring money into political campaigns with the seasoned skill of master puppeteers. And that is just the Everglades. Movement by the EPA to impose enforceable limits on phosphorous pollution in all Florida waters has triggered a political backlash wrapping up Democrats and Republicans, threatening riders in Congress to eviscerate the Clean Water Act, despite scientific evidence of human health threats, threats to tourism, and the economy from poisoned waters. We can’t afford to save ourselves from ourselves.

No politician wants to run on a platform, how bad things are. But this election cycle, what the public has been treated to is a non-stop, in-your-face, how bad the unemployment is with no– NO– further development of the theme that state policies and the Florida legislature substantially contributed to the economic calamity. This idea that our economic woes are a form of immaculate conception fits neatly with creationism and its boosters. Some days I wonder if there is so much mercury in Florida’s environment that it has made its voters plain stupider than the rest of the nation.

Now GOP candidate for governor of Florida, Rick Scott, claims that the Florida Department of Community Affairs, nicknamed DCA, is “killing jobs”. The DCA is charged with protecting communities and the environment from the costs of overdevelopment. Although most sentient observers would question whether DCA has had any beneficial effect in these missions, the prospect of simply eliminating the agency is outrageous. In affirming his wish to decapitate the DCA, Republican candidate Scott has adopted the code and secret handshake between Florida builders, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and Associated Industries. All development is good. All development increases tax base. All conversion of farmland is better than good because at the end of the day, it is more profitable building tract housing and condos than raising vegetables or sugarcane.

There is a further idiocy accompanying Scott’s uninformed view of DCA: that is, that local government can do a better job of managing growth than the state. What a crock of horse manure. The worst thieves are the local thieves. At least in theory, at the state and federal level, there are levers strong enough to restrain the results of gerrymandered local districts. In Florida, the GOP-led Legislature had the Florida Department of Community Affairs in its cross-hatch long before the building boom. They have always sought to bust up the do-good’ers and get government off the backs of developer/campaign contributors so they can build in more wetlands, on more estuaries, and in more sugar fields– driving up the price of speculatively purchased property.

The victims don’t just include the environment. The victims of this nonsense are ordinary people and clueless voters. It is tragic that Democrats running for high office simply lacked the courage, the initiative or the conviction to say that the party made mistakes in Florida tied to “free” market policies and politicians who turned Florida into a pinata for campaign donors reliant on zoning changes for the next mega-mall, for the next insta-grow suburb, and for the next square mile, anonymous town to fill the needs of Wall Street mortgage pools, fees and commissions paid in thirty days.

What the Florida GOP is serving up this election cycle is the worst hash of candidates and “programs” that I have seen in more than two decades. Rick Scott made hundreds of millions of dollars exploiting government health care programs. His business model and lobbying first advocated for government Medicaire reimbursement limits that he, then, found ways to undercut and thereby profit. The corporation he founded paid the largest civil fine for Medicare fraud in US history. Does that tell you, anything? Hello? Rick Scott wants to “save the Everglades”. Anyone, home?

There is approximately one week for the clucking chickens among the electorate to get their heads screwed on straight. Whether that can happen or not, is undecided and in the hands of independent voters in Florida.

ALAN FARAGO, conservation chair of Friends of the Everglades, lives in south Florida. He can be reached at: afarago@bellsouth.net

Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net

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