Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Florida Gov. Rick Scott's "Swamp", Big Sugar, and Trump's attack on the "Administrative State" ... by gimleteye

The year was 1999. Remember Jeb Bush's then shiny, new slogan for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection: "Less Process, More Protection"? It was cute. A phrase that captured a core tenet of the Republican Party: if you cut government regulation, you can do a better job protecting what government is supposed to protect. In no other area of public policy does "overly burdensome" regulation impact big campaign donors so much as the environment.

Why? Because there is no simpler way to quickly put money in shareholder bank accounts than by eliminating those "external" costs like regulations protecting what taxpayers and voters want: important things like clean air and clean water, for example.

1999 was also the year that Donald Trump first floated the idea he could be a "reform" candidate for president. At the time, Trump was an entertainer who loved the limelight. His talk was glib. He was fiddling with the dials of public perception. Working from his gut. Watching the ratings rise and fall not just for himself, but for the ones who were already on the political tightrope. Bill Clinton. Hillary Clinton. Rudy Guiliani. Eighteen years later, Trump is president of the United States.

The first month of his presidency has been chaotic as might have been expected of anyone without any experience in elected office. Nevertheless, through the uproar and upset, a single idea appears to be crystallizing that in one form or another has animated the GOP for decades: dismantling what the GOP derisively calls "the administrative state".

Thus, the US Environmental Agency Protection budget is slated for a drastic cut, even though the agency accounts for less than 1 percent of federal discretionary spending.

We know about the EPA in Florida. We know very well. It is an agency charged with protecting the federal interest in clean air and clean water, and although its mission is clear, relentless attacks against environmental protections by special interests -- over nearly its entire existence stretching back to the days of Richard Nixon -- turned the agency into an "aspirational" promise to taxpayers. Bluntly, the EPA was as effective at doing its job in Florida as a pro wrestler who is pushed into the ring with his arms tied behind his back.

So how did Jeb Bush's "less process, more protection" work out for Florida? Not so well. Not so well at all.

In 2010, a federal judge -- Alan Gold -- ruled in favor of the non-profit environmental group I represent, Friends of the Everglades, in a lawsuit we brought six years earlier against the US Environmental Protection Agency. We charged that the federal agency responsible for enforcing the pollution standard in the Everglades governing excess phosphorous from Big Sugar's relentless runoff had utterly failed to hold the state of Florida accountable.

In 2003, Big Sugar colluded with Governor Bush and persuaded the Florida legislature to change the standards of an earlier agreement to protect the Everglades water quality. At the time, Big Sugar flooded the state legislature with so many paid lobbyists, the swamp filled to rim. "Less process, more protection" was a figment of lubricated imaginations. A federal court agreed, insisting that the US EPA do its job and hold Florida accountable.

Big Sugar, of course, has been fuming ever since. Today, Jeb Bush has retired to lushly carpeted corporate boards and consultancies. Florida's political swamp is still overseen by a cartel of sugar farmers who would not exist but for corporate welfare embedded in the federal US Farm Bill.

That welfare makes Big Sugar the dominant political force in Florida. Today's proxies for Big Sugar include Gov. Rick Scott who resembles Trump in one key respect: both came to great wealth by gaming systems that governed the margins of their respective industries; Scott, medical reimbursements authorized by federal health care law, and Trump, various enterprises circumscribed by regulatory prohibitions meant to curb corruption and to protect the public interest. Other proxies of Big Sugar: Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam, who intends to run for Gov. Scott's seat, Representative Matt Caldwell -- who is organizing resistance against the purchase of Big Sugar lands by the State, a centerpiece of the legislative agenda by Senate president Joe Negron, and Big Sugar's primary backstop in Congress: US Senator Marco Rubio.

Trump, in a press conference yesterday -- previewing his address to Congress today -- aired his talking points lifted straight from the pages of the Rick Scott playbook that derive, in essence, from the same fake promise Jeb Bush offered in 2003: "less process, more protection". Jobs, first. And especially: the environmental regulations are the worst manifestations of the "administrative state".

In other words, we've seen this film in Florida before and it sucked.

In 2012, Gov. Rick Scott declared victory when he announced he was backing a $880 million taxpayer backed "Restoration Strategies" plan to save the Everglades. In fact, Scott and the state of Florida had been sharply rebuked by a federal judge who required the US Environmental Protection Agency to hold Florida accountable for violating the pollution standard at the heart of a 2000 federal state agreement, itself the result of successful environmental litigation in the early 1990's.

If not for Judge Gold's ruling and a chain of responsibility tying the US EPA to real and hard commitments, restoring the Everglades could be whatever Big Sugar wanted it to be.

"Less process, more protection" has a new wrinkle in Trump world. Now, Trump says, we are going to make America great again by giving control back to the states. We will do what Steve Bannon wants: a brutal evisceration of federal responsibility because, in the incredible naiveté of Trump supporters, what is killing jobs and holding back the US economy are all these federal rules and regulations.

Just last week, a man who founded an economic council near Palm Beach and the "Southern" White House, Trump's private Mar-A-Lago -- resigned because, he told the Treasure Coast Palm newspaper, the state of Florida was giving Big Sugar the right to destroy coastal businesses due to the rampant, unchecked pollution of waterways. In other words, Gov. Rick Scott -- the "jobs" governor -- was guilty in his informed experience of killing jobs, and he could no longer pretend to be part of what amounted to a public joke.

I vividly recall a day in 2003 when Gov. Bush's chief environmental aide stood on the steps of a federal courthouse in downtown Miami and pontificated before television cameras: Jeb Bush and Big Sugar's changes to state water quality law were not only consistent with federal law, their amendments to the Everglades Forever Act (passed in 1994) were improvements. There are no new jokes. They are only re-told with a different spin.

The course of litigation over Bush's lie took more than a decade to resolve, and when it did resolve, Gov. Rick Scott's public relations machinery never even used a single sentence to explain to Floridians that it took citizens holding the federal US Environmental Protection Agency's feet to the fire to extract FACT and SCIENCE that informed a federal judge's decision.

With Trump today, Americans will witness the vestiges of federal accountability fade to black. The solution is to make federal agencies better and more responsive to their mandates to protect the public interest. The "administrative state" that Steve Bannon rails against is exactly the product of special interests who dominate the swamp. They know, because their net worth reflects the fact, control of the swamp is much easier and much less scrutinized at the state level. That is the lesson of Florida.

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