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Business Observer Friday, May 4, 2012 6 years ago

Capitol Chatter: May 4

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Water standards, Scott affects higher education and Bondi backed Arizona immigration law.

Water standards battle continues to slog on
The battle to stop the federal Environmental Protection Agency's attempt to impose crippling costs on municipalities and businesses in Florida with a new water quality standard will likely continue to the next level.

Environmentalists and the feds on one side and local governments, businesses and state policymakers on the other side, have indicated their plan to keep fighting the volatile case.

The method and impact of “numeric nutrient criteria” the EPA proposed would have huge repercussions for the state.

The state has long used what's called a “narrative” criteria for determining pollution in lakes and rivers. The EPA unilaterally decreed a “numeric nutrient” criteria for Florida that is expected to add hundreds of millions of dollars in compliance costs.

So the state, municipalities and private organizations challenged it in court. In a parallel track, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection began developing its own numeric standards that it hoped would be acceptable to the feds.

In February, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that the numeric standards were better than the narrative, and approved the EPA standard for lakes and springs, but he found problems with the ones for rivers and streams and overturned those.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Gulf Restoration Network filed notice in April to challenge the EPA's proposed standard for springs, which Hinkle upheld, claiming they were too low. They are also expected to fight the ones he overturned.

A coalition of Florida organizations including the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Stormwater Association, and others also filed a notice of appeal shortly thereafter to signal their intent to keep fighting.

Where this ends up is critical to businesses and residents. If the strictest standards are upheld, municipalities and large private water users throughout the state will be required to re-build their water and stormwater systems at enormous costs. For local governments and businesses, those will be passed on to users and rise the cost of living in the state.

Scott makes mark on higher education
Gov. Rick Scott's approval of the state's first polytechnic college and his veto of a tuition-increasing bill reflect a continued business-eyed approach to higher ed, in which he repeatedly asks the question: What's the payback on the investment?

When Scott approved the Florida Polytechnic Institute in Lakeland, it was typically painted as him agreeing to what a powerful state senator, J.D. Alexander, wanted in his district. But Scott has rarely shown that sort of Tallahassee motivation.

The governor said he saw the new school as an investment in the state's future with a specific payback of high-skilled, high-tech workers who would provide a diversified boost to the state's economy. He has talked consistently about the need for more STEM --┬áscience, technology, engineering and math disciplines — in education.

And again, when he vetoed a bill that would have allowed the University of Florida and Florida State University to increase tuition on their own by unlimited amounts, he cited a lack of return as his reason.

That veto displeased by higher ed officials and business groups.

In his veto announcement, Scott wrote: “I do not feel that I can sign this bill into law without a more detailed plan to ensure the increased tuition requirements on Florida students will provide the return they and other Floridians need on their additional investment.”

Legislative maps finally finished
A trio of rulings in favor of the new legislative and congressional district maps has all but settled the issue for the next decade.

First, the Florida Supreme Court approved the Legislature's second attempt at crafting new Senate district boundaries.

The court rejected the first draft for the Senate, while approving the House versions, on the grounds that it gerrymandered some districts and put disparate portions in the same district. One example was the Manatee County Senate seat that ran from the beach communities to central Polk County. Justices said that violated a constitutional amendment approved by voters to keep districts compact.

Those worries were fixed well enough for justices who voted 5-2 in favor of the new maps.

The redistricting is constitutionally required by law every 10 years based on the new U.S. Census data. The goal constitutionally is to make sure representatives have a similar number of constituents, which can change over the years with growth and migration patterns. The goal politically is to ensure certain amounts of minority representation.

And Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice approved the plans for new congressional, House and Senate districts. Plus, a Leon County judge declined to set aside the new congressional maps, ruling that opponents backed by the Florida Democratic Party had not proved that legislators violated the state's new anti-gerrymandering laws.

Bondi backed Arizona in immigration case
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi signed on to a legal brief at the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Arizona's legal battle over its 2010 immigration law.

The brief, by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, argues the Arizona side that federal law does not prohibit individual states from passing laws cracking down on illegal immigrants within federal immigration laws.

United States Attorney General Eric Holder, appointed by President Barack Obama, is fighting to stop Arizona from taking steps to enforce the federal laws that the federal government is not enforcing. It's convoluted, packed full with politics and voting demographics, but the gist is that the feds contend that Arizona is making immigration policy while Arizona contends it is merely enforcing federal immigration policy.

The brief Bondi backs says: “Arizona has by statute mandated that its law-enforcement officials communicate with and assist the federal government in enforcing immigration law to the full extent Congress prescribed...It is a puzzling view of federal preemption, to say the least, which would nullify a state law seeking to achieve the tasks that federal law itself asks states to perform.”

At stake for some in the battle is U.S. security and the enormous costs of illegal immigration for border states. For others what is at stake are the votes of Hispanics.

Supreme Court justices, in oral arguments, seemed to take a dim view of the administration's case, but a ruling is several months away.

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