STUART, Fla. — Gov. Rick Scott’s mantra is jobs, jobs, jobs.
The small-government, tea party-backed Republican isn’t necessarily known as an environmental governor. He touts gutting regulations and state agencies, including ones that protect the environment. Many environmentalists criticize his record and say he puts business interests before protecting water and natural lands.
Yet Scott’s signature is on a law that could reshape South Florida’s water system. He signed a bill in May to build a reservoir to send more water to the Everglades and curb Lake Okeechobee discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
The reservoir was Stuart GOP Senate President Joe Negron’s proposal, but will be part of Scott’s record if he runs for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s seat next year. In 2016, Scott also signed Negron’s “Legacy Florida” bill that created a dedicated fund for Everglades and springs restoration.
As Scott’s reign comes to an end — his last regular legislative session starts in January — TCPalm analyzed his environmental record since he took office in 2011.
Everglades and springs
This is where Scott has been the most successful, though not without criticism.
. He committed $90 million to match federal funds to raise the Tamiami Trail in Miami-Dade County so more water can flow into the Everglades and less has to be discharged into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
. His administration settled a decades-long federal lawsuit over water quality in the Everglades. That led to a 2013 law he signed called Restoration Strategies that allocates $880 million over 10 years to clean farm runoff while maintaining a tax on sugar farmers to clean their pollution. The law, however, was controversial because many environmentalists said the sugar industry looked like it was doing a lot when in fact taxpayers would foot most of the farm runoff cleanup.
. Scott supported Negron’s advocacy of the Legislature allocating $232 million for the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee in 2014, Negron said.
. Since 2013, springs restoration funding has seen a boost, jumping from $11.7 million that year to $50 million in 2017.
Gutting state agencies
Scott’s push to reduce the size of state agencies is what gave him a reputation of gutting environmental protection.
. Soon after taking office, Scott and the Legislature ordered water management districts to slash their property tax collections. These cuts offset progress made on funding for springs and Everglades restoration, environmentalists interviewed for this story said, because water districts oversee those projects. Water districts also are in charge of issuing and enforcing permits that affect pollution going into waterways.
. The South Florida Water Management District, which oversees Everglades restoration, had its budget cut by almost half and operates with less money today than it did in 2006.
. The district initially defied Scott and voted not to trim its tax rate again for 2016, but after pressure from Tallahassee, it reversed that vote. Two months later, the district’s executive director resigned and Scott replaced him with his former lawyer, Peter Antonacci.
. The trimmed tax rate saved homeowners less than $3 on $100,000 of taxable property value and cost the district $21 million.
. Scott in 2011 also abolished the Department of Community Affairs, which oversaw development growth and, Scott said at the time, imposed too much red tape on the economic recovery and job creation.
. In Scott’s first year in office in 2011, the Legislature zeroed out funding for the Florida Forever land conservation program, which received roughly $300 million annually until the Great Recession. The program eventually got $744,000 that year transferred from existing state funds.
. When he ran for re-election in 2014 against former Gov. Charlie Crist, Scott asked for $150 million for Florida Forever, but the Legislature didn’t grant it.
. Since his re-election, Scott’s requests for the program peaked at $25.1 million.
. Despite a 2014 constitutional amendment to funnel more money into land conservation, budget allocations for the program haven’t surpassed $15.2 million, and this year it was zeroed out.
A chart shows the number of pollution regulation enforcement cases opened before and after Scott took office in 2011. It explains why environmentalists say Scott has taken Florida backward in forcing polluters to comply with regulations.
. The Department of Environmental Protection has opened 75 percent fewer pollution regulation enforcement cases since 2011, according to agency data gathered by Florida Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
. The drop is the result of regulated entities “doing the right thing and preventing environmental harm before it ever occurs,” DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said via email.
. In 2015, polluters had a compliance rate of 97 percent and “once a violation has been discovered, the department’s first priority is getting the facility back into compliance as quickly as possible,” Miller said.
. The high compliance rate is the result of the agency looking the other way, reduced manpower to do enforcement and pressure under the Scott administration to not open enforcement cases even when there’s a clear violation, said Jerry Phillips, a former DEP attorney and director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
“They are writing up false reports and so forth because employees are scared to put in paper that facilities are in violation,” Phillips said.
. Scott pushed for a law he signed this year to require businesses and the government to notify the public when there are pollution problems. The law was inspired by a sinkhole that opened at a phosphate plant in Polk County, allowing contaminated water to enter the aquifer. Neither Mosaic nor the DEP notified the public for three weeks because state law at the time didn’t require them to do so unless the pollution happened outside the polluter’s property.
Information from: The Stuart (Fla.) News, http://www.tcpalm.com