Republicans targeting Nelson with billboard on algae bloom

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is hoping to tie anger about the toxic algae bloom that has fouled waters in the Treasure Coast to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat the GOP wants to knock off when he seeks re-election in 2018.

Starting today, commuters driving past Interstate 95 at 10th Avenue near exit 64 will see a billboard urging them to “TELL BILL NELSON: Do more to fix Florida’s algae crisis.”

Nelson authored legislation that was passed into law in 2014 to direct $82 million for research into the causes and control of algae blooms and to give additional resources to communities affected by them.

The senator has also sponsored legislation that would, for the first time, pave the way for states and local communities hit hard by algae blooms to get federal assistance.

That legislation passed the Senate’s Commerce Committee in May. The Senate’s GOP leadership will determine when it is brought to the floor.

Nelson, first elected to the Senate in 2000 after a stint in the U.S. House of Representatives, could face Gov. Rick Scott in what would be an expensive, all-out battle Democrats can’t afford to lose if they have any hope of recapturing a majority in the Senate.

The GOP is already at work softening up Nelson.

“After 40 years in Congress, Bill Nelson has only reinforced his ineffectiveness as a lawmaker,” NRSC Communications Director Katie Martin said. “Floridians deserve a senator who will win the fight to fix the algae crisis, and decades have proven that Bill Nelson isn’t the man for the job.”

An algae outbreak curdled sections of the St. Lucie River in 2016, damaging businesses and angering residents who blamed Lake Okeechobee discharges for the smelly bloom.

State lawmakers passed a plan this year that would have the state store water south of Lake Okeechobee as a means of eliminating the discharges and, they hope, the algae spread.

For his part, Nelson is aware he has a political target on his back.

His campaign sent out a fundraising pitch Thursday mentioning Scott and President Donald Trump.

“CNN has ranked Florida’s Senate race as one of the most competitive races in the country next year,” the campaign pitch read. “And just last week, Gov. Rick Scott and Donald Trump met in New Jersey to begin plotting their campaign against Bill Nelson.”

The campaign said “a generous group of donors has stepped up big time and has offered to MATCH every donation we receive this week.”

“With Trump personally recruiting Scott to be his rubber stamp in the Senate, we CANNOT afford to waste this extraordinary opportunity to have your donation DOUBLED – making every dollar you give go TWICE as far – but time is running out.”

The donation match ended on Friday, but Nelson’s fight for re-election is only just warming up.

Nelson announces opposition to Trump’s EPA pick

Sen. Bill Nelson calls on the House to pass a Zika funding bill without "unacceptable riders."

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has announced his opposition to President Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt.

Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general, shut down his office’s environmental protection unit. Critics fear he will curtail the EPA’s enforcement authority.

Nelson said he won’t vote to confirm Pruitt because of his ties to the oil and gas industry, which has supported Pruitt’s campaigns.

“Ever since I was a young congressman, I have been fighting to keep oil rigs off the coast of Florida,” Nelson said. “And an EPA administrator with such close ties to the oil industry is deeply concerning for the people of Florida.”

While Trump wants Pruitt to lead the EPA, one Florida congressman, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, has introduced legislation to terminate the agency.

Several members of Palm Beach County’s congressional delegation have blasted that idea.

 

Florida’s tide of red ink recedes again — hitting nine-year low

Florida's debt level in 2016 at a nine-year low.
Florida’s debt level in 2016 at a nine-year low.

Florida’s debt dropped $1.6 billion last year to its lowest overall level since 2007, Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet were told Tuesday.

The state’s Bond Finance Division Director Ben Watkins pointed out the decline returned Florida to its more recent course of reducing the level of red ink, after a one-year increase spawned by major borrowing for road work on Interstate 4.

The $24.1 billion owed by Florida is its lowest level since 2007. Lawmakers were forced to include $2.1 billion in taxpayer money in the state’s $82 billion budget just to service the debt.

The decline has been helped by favorable interest rates, which have prodded the state to refinance some of what it owes over the past six years, saving about $2.5 billion, Watkins told the Cabinet.

About half of the state’s debt stems from bond financing to for school and university construction, with another 40 percent attributed to transportation work.

Stemming the tide of red ink comes even as Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has outlined plans for the state to bond $1.2 billion over 20 years to buy 60,000 acres to ease the impact of water discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

The land, mostly in western Palm Beach County, would be turned into a reservoir that would help cleanse farm-polluted water from the lake, which he said has “poisoned” the waterways of surrounding communities.

Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, haven’t said much about Negron’s initiative, which totals $2.4 billion, including an anticipated federal match.

Scott, though, has been intent on reducing Florida’s debt. Since he took office in 2011, debt has dropped $3.6 billion, from $27.7 billion.

Scott also effectively reversed a long period of borrowing that spiked when Gov. Jeb Bush took office in 1999 and state borrowing climbed about $10 billion over the next decade.

Negron sharpening sales pitch for Lake O land-buy as House looks to tighten spending

Senate President Joe Negron
Senate President Joe Negron

With new House Speaker Richard Corcoran already calling for reducing state spending, his freshly minted counterpart, Senate President Joe Negron, may have to polish his sales pitch to win his signature priority — a massive land buy south of Lake Okeechobee.

Negron, R-Stuart, includes part of northern Palm Beach County in his district, along with a huge swath of the Treasure Coast fouled last summer by polluted water discharged from the big lake to prevent flooding.

Negron has proposed a $2.4 billion plan to buy 60,000 acres, mostly in western Palm Beach County, for a reservoir that would stem the need for discharges which he said “poisoned” the waterways of surrounding communities.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, because no one says that the status quo is acceptable,” Negron said, hours after being sworn-in at this week’s organization session of the Legislature.

Negron plans to seek $65 million in taxpayer money to bond $1.2 billion over 20 years, using voter-approved Amendment 1 money that produces more than $700 million a year for conservation.

Corcoran said this week that the $82 billion state budget is in much worse shape than economists have said. Health care and pension costs have risen, he said and the specter of a tight budget fits into his overall approach to reduce the scope of hometown projects that always get tucked in the state spending plan by lawmakers.

Negron said this week that he agrees cuts can be made. But he isn’t budging from spending more to ease the state’s water problems while steering big money to higher education, another top shelf item for the Senate president.

On the land buy, Negron said he would urge lawmakers to consider that 75 percent of voters approved Amendment 1 in 2014 — which he said was a clear signal that conservation land should be acquired.

“The case I have to make is we are implementing the will of the voters,” Negron said.

 

Does population surge mean Florida will be parched?

Will Florida have enough water for surging population?
Will Florida have enough water for surging population?

With Florida’s population poised to climb by 15 million people in coming decades, demand for water – already one of the state’s scarcest resources — is poised to spike 54 percent if development goes unchecked, a new report shows.

The agriculture region east of Lake Okeechobee already is one of the state’s biggest users of water. But as the site of big residential developments already approved in Palm Beach County, the demand will intensify by 2070, analysts said.

A similar threat to the availability of fresh water also exists across Central Florida and in Southwest Florida, where thousands of new homes are planned in areas once considered off-limits to development.

“I agree that the situation does look dire,” said Ryan Smart, president of 1,000 Friends of Florida, which joined with the Florida Department of Agriculture and University of Florida’s GeoPlan Center in preparing the report.

“But I take hope in the fact that there are relatively simple things that we can do as Floridians, to dig us out of the hole,” he added.

Environmentalists working to assure no shade thrown at solar amendment next week

A tax exemption for solar energy is on the Aug. 30 primary ballot.
A tax exemption for solar energy is on the Aug. 30 primary ballot.

Amid mud-slinging primary fights and expected low turnout, environmental groups are stepping-up efforts to win voter approval next week for Amendment 4 — a new tax-exemption for homeowners and businesses installing solar equipment.

Florida Conservation Voters has posted a website that makes it easy for supporters to find an early voting site near them. Constitutional amendments must be approved by at least 60 percent of those voting on the measure.

There hasn’t been much vocal opposition to Amendment 4, put on the ballot by state lawmakers. But supporters know the 60 percent bar is still a high one.

“If every Florida voter who supports expanding the use of clean energy and reducing our state’s reliance on fossil fuels came out to vote, Amendment 4 would pass in a landslide,” said Aliki Moncrief, Florida Conservation Voters Executive Director. “The August primary is our chance to make our voices heard.”

Murphy picks up conservation endorsement, over higher-rated Grayson

U.S. Reps. Patrick Murphy (l) and Alan Grayson
U.S. Reps. Patrick Murphy (l) and Alan Grayson

Jupiter Democrat Patrick Murphy scooped up the endorsement Tuesday of the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund in his U.S. Senate race, with both the organization and congressman drawing sharp contrasts with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

Tiernan Sittenfeld of the league called Murphy, “The only candidate who can defeat climate-change denier Marco Rubio.”

Murphy, a two-term congressman, touted his support for federal funding of efforts to restore the Everglades and reduce pollution from Lake Okeechobee discharges. He said that “protecting our environment is central to my campaign for the Senate.”

While Tuesday’s focus was on Rubio, who earned a score of zero from the league last year, Murphy still has to clear a five-way Democratic primary for his party’s nomination on Aug. 30.

His leading rival, U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando, wasted no time pointing out that Murphy joined a Republican-led vote in favor of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project, opposed by President Obama.

Grayson also earned higher ratings than Murphy from the league last year and also over the course of their time in Congress. Murphy, however, has been tapped as the Democratic establishment’s choice in Florida’s Senate race, and many organizations seem to be falling in line.

“Grayson and his 97 percent LCV lifetime rating shows he’s the true environmental defender in this race. Murphy’s 80 percent rating, for a Democrat, is an embarrassment,” said Michael Ceraso, Grayson’s campaign manager.

Negron endorses massive land buy to ease Lake Okeechobee runoff woes

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said he'll support a massive land buy south of Lake Okeechobee
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said he’ll support a massive land buy south of Lake Okeechobee

Senate President-designate Joe Negron said Tuesday that he will push for a massive, $2.4 billion public works project to create 60,000 acres of water storage south of Lake Okeechobee, signaling a major break in one of Florida’s longest political and environmental battles.

At a news conference in his Stuart hometown, Negron, a Republican who represents part of northern Palm Beach County, said the land-buy is needed to ease the deadly environmental effect of discharges of Lake Okeechobee water fouled by runoff from nearby farms and residential and commercial development.

The Indian River Lagoon, in Negron’s district, has turned green with toxic algae this summer, fueled by the nutrient rich water pushed out of the big lake to lower the risk of flooding.

“For too long, our community has been plagued by tremendous environmental and economic impacts as hundreds of millions of gallons of water are released from Lake Okeechobee each year,” Negron said. “Permanent storage south of Lake Okeechobee is unquestionably needed as part of the overall plan to solve this catastrophic problem, particularly given the very devastating effects the current algal blooms are causing in both our estuaries and the Everglades.”

Environmental organizations have been demanding the land buy for years to create new reservoirs for water storage.

But Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Legislature have denied the approach as too costly and scientifically unproven.

Negron’s endorsement, however, is a big step in negotiations that will begin in earnest following this fall’s elections. The Legislature reconvenes in March.

Negron is proposing a state-federal split of the $2.4 billion price tag. The state would draw financing by using about $100 million-a-year in documentary stamp tax dollars set aside by voters in 2014 under constitutional Amendment 1.

These dollars, used over the next 20 years, would finance the purchase of the land and construction of the reservoirs, Negron said.

Tired of stay-away Scott, Murphy brings algae water to governor’s office

U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy outside Gov. Scott's office -- with algae water
U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy outside Gov. Scott’s office — with algae water

Saying he was frustrated by Republican Rick Scott’s lack of action on the algae bloom plaguing the Treasure Coast, Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter brought bottles of foul-smelling, toxic green water Tuesday to the governor’s office so he could see it first hand.

“I decided that I wanted to come to Tallahassee and deliver this bottle of toxic algae to the governor to make sure he sees exactly what we are dealing with on a day-to-day basis,” Murphy said, shortly after delivering a half-dozen bottles of the Indian River Lagoon water to the office.

Scott is out of town.

Murphy delivering bottles of algae-fouled water to Gov. Scott's office
Murphy delivering bottles of algae-fouled water to Gov. Scott’s office

“You see, my constituents have to wake up every morning and not only do they have to look at this, two-, three-, four-inches of algae on the surface. But they have to smell it, and that is something that is really hard to put into words, just how bad this really smells,” he added.

Scott, who has dashed to Orlando and Fort Myers to provide relief after recent mass-shootings, has mostly stayed away from the Treasure Coast during the algae outbreak, which has angered homeowners and inflamed environmental activists.

The governor did come to West Palm Beach in June to take part in a roundtable on the Zika virus. But unlike the man Murphy is hoping to unseat, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Scott chose not to go up the coast to observe the spreading algae and catch heat from area residents.

Instead, Scott asked the Obama administration to declare a federal emergency, which was declined. But that action has only added to Scott’s criticism of the president for failing to fund a replacement for the aging dike around Lake Okeechobee.

The Army Corps of Engineers has ordered water releases from the big lake to ease stress on the dike, sending farm- and septic-tank polluted water flowing into the Indian River estuary and and Caloosahatchee River in southwest Florida.

Scott also has turned focus away from the sugar industry and other politically influential farming giants as a source of the dirty water. Instead, the governor

Scott’s office wasn’t pleased by Murphy’s arrival.

“It’s disappointing that he has spent more time on a stunt than a solution,” said Jackie Schutz, a Scott spokeswoman.

“We wish Congressman Murphy would spend more time in Washington getting Congress and the President to approve funding to repair the federally operated Herbert Hoover Dike which has caused the algae problem in the Treasure Coast.”

Murphy on Tuesday said that Scott should urge lawmakers to use voter-approved Amendment 1 environmental dollars to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee that can be used to clean and store the discharged lake water.

Republican lawmakers have rejected both the price and science behind the proposal.

“This isn’t a problem you should be pointing fingers and blaming folks,” Murphy said. “This is well beyond that. My constituents don’t care whose fault this is, they want it solved.”

Murphy’s appearance at the Capitol was the latest dust-up between the Democratic Senate candidate and Republican governor over algae.

Last week, the governor’s office served up email sent by a Murphy aide seeking to delay the announcement by the Small Business Administration of a federal aide program for companies and services hurt by the algae outbreak.

Murphy wanted to attend a news conference unveiling the program and had a conflict on the day scheduled. Once the email was forwarded to Scott by the SBA, the governor’s office became outraged, saying it was important to hold the announcement as soon as possible, warning that a day’s delay jeopardized help for businesses.

The America Rising PAC, which does opposition research on Democratic candidates, soon was handing out details of the clash to reporters.

Obama administration denies Scott’s bid for federal emergency declaration over algae bloom

Algae bloom on Lake Okeechobee earlier this month.
Algae bloom on Lake Okeechobee earlier this month.

The Obama administration denied Gov. Rick Scott’s bid for a federal emergency declaration in response to the algae bloom that has fouled Florida’s Treasure Coast.

Scott didn’t make his case that federal assistance under the Stafford Act is warranted, said Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate in a letter late Friday. Fugate is a former Florida emergency management chief.

It’s the second time in less than a month that Scott has been turned down in his request for a federal declaration, having lost a similar bid for aid following the massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.

In his July 6 request, Scott argued that

Even Scott is now promoting efforts to reduce the impact of runoff from septic tanks on fueling the massive algae bloom

The bloom now spans roughly 200 square miles — a 500 percent increase from May, when it was measured at 33 square miles.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is spending billions to repair the dike around the lake, has been flushing lake water down the St. Lucie Estuary and Caloosahatchee River since last year because high lake water levels threaten the fragile dike around it and the corps must be sure to have enough storage space in the lake during the rainy season.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter also criticized Scott for coming up short in his sales pitch for aid to the Obama administration. He said the state isn’t doing enough to clean water being released from Lake Okeechobee, even though voters sought to improve the big lake by approving a constitutional amendment that sets aside money for land-buying.

“Gov. Scott’s initial request only sought to point fingers at the federal government and away from the state’s responsibilities,” Murphy said. “If the Governor saw the same devastation I’ve seen firsthand, he would immediately submit a legitimate request for assistance and finally use Amendment 1 funds as they were intended – to buy additional water storage lands that would provide relief to our waterways.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said he was disappointed with Obama’s decision, noting that the president is familiar with the Treasure Coast, having enjoyed a few rounds at Floridian National Golf Club in Palm City.

“This is an ill-advised decision on the president’s part, and he should reconsider and grant the disaster request,” Rubio said.