Christie: 2018 election: Florida’s environment don’t get no respect, no respect at all

Although Florida’s economy is heavily dependent on the environment, most political candidates are loathe to put, and keep those issues out front during a campaign.

The state’s environment could use a little more respect from political candidates this election season.

For the past several weeks, candidates have been trying to figure what issues are most important to voters. With some individual races as tight as they are, every hopeful running — be it for county commission or state senate — knows hitting on that one topic that resonates with voters can move the needle just enough to eke out a win. (Well, that and spending a lot of money on the campaign in the last couple weeks.)

RELATED: Post endorsements for the 2018 primary elections

But what are those hot-button voter issues?

Is it education? We do have a flashpoint issue in school security. There’s is also the much bigger issue of our K-12 public schools being in the bottom fifth in the nation. And Florida’s horrendous teacher pay has actually resulted in a shortage of about 4,000 teachers statewide to begin the 2018-19 school year.

Is it the economy? We do have this issue that, despite all the jobs created the last several years, too many residents complain they need two or three of them to make ends meet. That’s what happens when most of the jobs created are minimum wage. Meanwhile, the cost of housing is going through the roof in many places like, well, Palm Beach County.

Is it the environment? Or as I call it, “the Rodney Dangerfield of primary ballot issues.” Voters are witnessing a red tide causing massive fish kills, and manatee and turtle deaths up and down the Southwest Florida coast. They are watching the ongoing green goo affectionately known as “toxic blue-green algae” find its way into the backyard waterways of Treasure Coast residents. And of course, there’s that long-term, existential threat to our very way of life that everyone fears but few want to talk about: sea level rise. (That’s right, I said it.)

RELATED: The Environmental Issues Facing Florida This Election Season

In a survey released by the USA Today Network and Florida Atlantic University in June, voters said the environment was their No. 3 concern after economy and school safety, respectively. But unlike these first two, environmental issues cannot seem to get and/or maintain traction on the campaign trail.

How can that be, one might ask, when dead manatees are floating into marinas? How can that be when water is submerging roads and parks during King tides? And how can that be when several Martin County beaches — Jensen, Stuart, Bathtub and Hobe Sound  — are the latest to close as blue-green algae and red tide continue to spread throughout the state of Florida.

Venting on social media by irate residents about red tide and blue-green algae has gotten so bad that law enforcement is on edge.

A 250-pound Goliath grouper floats in the water in Sanibel, where red tide is killing millions of fish in Sanibel. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

And on August 13, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency over the ongoing toxic red tide bloom.

“The red tide, which grows offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, has drifted toward the coast and is being blamed for killing scores of animals, including manatees, turtles, and thousands of fish,” reported Palm Beach Post staff writer Kimberly Miller.

But around that same time, when he had the opportunity to confront Treasure Coast residents about the blue-green goo that’s ruining their fishing and boating, Scott elected to do the equivalent of a boating flyover — leaving residents and their questions hanging.

Algae in the Caloosahatchee River beside the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam in Alva, Fla. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

The governor-turned-U.S. Senate candidate isn’t much different from his political brethren on this front; though most can seem to muster a bit more face-to-face compassion. Still, when Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phillip Levine tried to ride his sea-level-rise street cred to the top of the ticket, it didn’t work that well. Sure, voters like that stuff. But who can focus on an environmental threat when another candidate is accusing you of being a supporter of President Donald Trump, and guns are blazing at high school football games?

As a result, the environment gets pushed to the back-burner in a state that built its image off of sunshine and beautiful beaches. The state’s three-legged economy — tourism, agriculture and real estate — is so dependent on the environment that every storm season holds the potential to lay waste to all three. Witness: Hurricane Irma.

But so short is our attention span in this era of breaking news that environmental issues, even when they are staring us in the face daily — again, I mention toxic red tide and green algae — can’t keep a politician’s attention. Today, for example, in the wake of a mass shooting at a gaming tournament on Sunday in Jacksonville, gun control is the topic du jour.

Sigh… maybe it will be different in the general election campaign.

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Christie: All Aboard Florida trying to keep Brightline’s future from dimming

Mike Reininger, Executive Director of Florida East Coast Industries (left) and Dennis Grady, President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches (right) speak with the Post Editorial Board this morning. (Joseph Forzano / The Palm Beach Post)

UPDATE, March 28, 11:40 a.m. — This morning, the state House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee pulled HB 269 from its meeting agenda. The committee gave no explanation for the last-minute decision to not discuss the House companion to state Sen. Debbie Mayfield’s Senate bill proposing new regulations on high-speed passenger rail in the state of Florida.

Here’s a statement released from All Aboard Florida:

“The fact that the bill was pulled from the committee agenda today means the overwhelming input from groups such as the Florida Chamber and Florida TaxWatch, elected officials from key cities and newspaper editorial boards is making an impact.  We have been saying this bill is not about safety but an attack against private property rights and is targeting our company.  Legislators are comprehending these facts, and we are appreciative.” – Rusty Roberts, Vice President of Government Affairs for Brightline

RELATED: House committee postpones vote on high-speed rail bill

And here’s excerpts from the response released Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida (CARE FL) to this morning’s developments:

“I want to once again thank Representatives MaryLynn Magar and Erin Grall for filing legislation this session to protect citizens from subsidizing high speed rail projects that pose risks to public safety.  We are disappointed that the subcommittee did not debate the bill today, but we respect the legislative process, and look forward to more dialogue about this important legislation in due course.

“All Aboard Florida (AAF) is taking a victory lap today in its public statements, but its latest actions are nothing more than a special interest group flexing its political muscle in a desperate attempt to protect its profits which are reliant on taxpayer subsidies. 

***

All Aboard Florida is up against it these days.

Right… So what else is new? The proposed high-speed passenger rail line that’s expected to have 32 trains running between Miami and West Palm Beach daily later this year has been fighting opponents since it was first announced four years ago.

And it’s mostly those folks north of West Palm Beach — in Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties — that have declared war on the proposed Brightline service. They have mounted a well-funded group to fight it — Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida (C.A.R.E.), based in the Treasure Coast.

But AAF officials met with the Post Editorial Board today because of a new, and potentially bigger threat — a bill proposed recently by Sen. Debbie Mayfield, a Vero Beach Republican.

A bill that, if passed, could halt the much-ballyhooed Brightline in its tracks.

Listen to audio of the meeting here:

The proposal (SB 386) would place regulations on passenger rail service. It was passed out of the Senate Transportation Committee — and sent All Aboard Florida into a tizzy, warning that the bill’s ostensible concern for safety could actually derail plans to link Orlando and Miami.

“The goal here is to mask this whole proposal in safety,” Mike Reininger, Florida East Coast Industries executive director, told the board. “Right?… Who doesn’t like puppies and bunnies?

“But that’s not what this bill is,” he added. “This is bill is simply another attempt to stop All Aboard Florida, specifically, and kill further passenger rail expansion, generally.”

Reininger, joined by Brightline general counsel Myles L. Tobin and Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches President Dennis Grady, added that passing the bill would certainly result in years of legal and administrative challenges. Not to mention having an impact on FEC’s schedule to begin offering service north of West Palm Beach.

(By the way, Reininger let it be known that All Aboard plans to propose opening a train station north of West Palm Beach “everywhere we believe is financial viable”.)

But Mayfield, at the March 14 Senate hearing, contended the proposal doesn’t target any particular rail service.

“This is about setting a framework so other high-speed rail companies that come in, we have that framework set into place,” said Mayfield of the measure, which would give the Florida Department of Transportation oversight where not preempted by federal law.

The measure also would require private passenger rail to cover the costs of installing and maintaining safety technology at crossings unless such contracts are agreed to by local governments.

“It’s not fair, and it’s certainly not legal,” Reininger said today. “We’ve already exceeded federal regulatory requirements in terms of upgrades to our tracks and crossings. So why do we need another law?”

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