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Florida

The worst legislative session in Florida history is over. The mad scramble to a remote state capitol is now emptying of lobbyists. But their work is hardly finished. Having engineered a radical evisceration of public protections, the lobbyists and state legislators are now headed home to counties and municipalities to make sure that the profits accrue to the benefactors: land speculators, ideologues, and private profiteers who are giving political campaigns money at an unprecedented rate to the GOP; in many cases, on the order of 10-1.

Last week the Florida legislature– the most conservative in modern history– wiped out more than 30 years of environmental protections with scarcely a debate in the Senate. Is this what Florida voters wanted, when they elected Rick Scott as governor and a legislature that clearly meant to use the economic crisis to impose a final solution on environmental rules? Those are the same special interests that pushed the economy built from housing and construction off a cliff with support for fraudulent growth schemes sold to gullible buyers as “what the market wants”. Florida has the highest level of at-risk properties in the nation. More than one in five mortgages are in some state of distress. In Miami-Dade, local courts dealing with foreclosures have a backlog of more than two years.

The other news from Miami this morning is that 35,000 acres of Everglades are burning this morning. While fires occur naturally in the Glades, there is nothing natural about a massive fire in May. This is the rainy season. There are so many aspects of Florida that are upside down. Most voters don’t seem to have a clue what they are looking at. How else to explain giving the governor’s office to a former health care entrepreneur forced to resign from Columbia/HCA, a company later assessed the largest civil fraud fine in US history.

One thing is for certain: the land speculators who control counties at the edge of the Everglades are thrilled that the Florida Department of Community Affairs is gone. DCA, as it is known, is history. It was the only state agency acting as a bulwark– and a weak one, at that– against rampant suburban sprawl. It will be up to those county commissions to decide whether to build more platted subdivisions and strip malls all the way to the parched River of Grass. In Miami-Dade they didn’t even wait for the state legislature to finish before setting the gears in motion; to hobble the county’s environmental regulatory agency so that there would literally no one to watch the granary doors busted opened for the thieves. It doesn’t matter that the granary is nearly empty. If it fills again, they will have the keys.

This is the catastrophic result of an economic crash, unequalled since the Great Depression through which no accountability was assessed. That is a key point that the Obama administration apparently missed. Had the perpetrators been held to account and connections made for the public, linking the financial engineers of Magnetar and Goldman Sachs, down to the purveyors of mortgages and fraud in swampland or farmland or desert conversion to platted subdivisions; then American voters might have some clue about what is needed to reverse a course that has already shifted millions of middle class Americans into a permanent state of fear and uncertainty.

Today the American landscape is painted in broad colors of mute and dumb or anxious and fearful. The fearful know how to express themselves, wrapped in sundry myths and story lines that have gone by the wayside. American Exceptionalism, for one.

It is a different view from Air Force One, but still worth revising for the electoral ground war in 2012. There will be time for the Obama White House to explain how taxpayers pockets were thoroughly picked during serial asset bubbles– first dot.com, then housing– and now their possessions sold to carpet baggers during the bust. It should have started earlier, part of hope and the change we can believe in. And because it didn’t, the Democrats have no message beyond tying yellow ribbons to trees. Does it help to know? Do they even tie ribbons any more.

In Florida, the absence of robust Democratic leadership has marginalized moderate Republicans where they might have existed. What is left is a radicalized, extremist version of the GOP that turned this legislative session in Tallahassee into a bloodbath against environmental protections and the very notion of the public commons. (Republicans are fiercely fighting redistricting, approved as a state-wide ballot referendum in November 2010 by more than 60 percent of voters.) For Democratic leaders, the distortions of campaign fundraising make it extraordinarily difficult to stand up for protecting Florida’s natural resources and communities from a partisan Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries and other so-called business leaders. The same phenomenon turned Al Gore mute on the environment in 2000 and cost him the presidential election.

Meanwhile, a political guerrilla war taking place out of sight of the mass market, mainstream media: GOP ideologues in control of the states are pushing back vehemently against efforts by the Obama administration to fortify the US Environmental Protection Agency. Never mind “lower taxes” or “Obamacare”: what the GOP really wants is to gut the EPA. Meanwhile, after a disastrous legislative session in Florida, the last hope is for a veto by an indifferent governor whose own environmental views have apparently been shaped by the view out of a private jet. Publicly, environmentalists are claiming, “it could have been worse” but in truth, it is no longer putting a sunny face on “two steps forward, one step backwards”: after decades of struggle, environmentalists are back to square one in Florida.

Meanwhile, the baseline of natural resources like the Everglades has dramatically altered. Among the 20 something’s who will inherit these challenges, will any stand for robust laws defending the public commons when the commons have already been paved and sprayed with sealant? Do any care that runoff is filled with toxics like mercury that seems as ubiquitous as lead in the veins of ancient Rome?

Republican legislators charge that Florida environmentalists “sensationalize” the impact of this session’s revolution. At best they are blind. At worst they are shameless, lying to maintain their standard of living. Their programs can’t be based on principle, because if the record of the last fifteen years proves anything it is that aiding and abetting corporations and private industry to take over the functions of government does not work, pure and simple. They want to shrink the size of government so it can be drowned in a bathtub, but what they really did was put in place a government designed to fail. Just look at Florida, a state so determined to win the race to the bottom, it already declared victory.

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

 

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

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