Climate Policy Takes The Stage In Florida Governor's Race

Florida Gov. Rick Scott helps release a 30-pound green sea turtle in the Gulf of Mexico in Marathon, Fla., in 2012. The governor is making environmental protection part of his re-election campaign. i i

Florida Gov. Rick Scott helps release a 30-pound green sea turtle in the Gulf of Mexico in Marathon, Fla., in 2012. The governor is making environmental protection part of his re-election campaign. Andy Newman/AP/Florida Keys News Bureau hide caption

itoggle caption Andy Newman/AP/Florida Keys News Bureau
Florida Gov. Rick Scott helps release a 30-pound green sea turtle in the Gulf of Mexico in Marathon, Fla., in 2012. The governor is making environmental protection part of his re-election campaign.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott helps release a 30-pound green sea turtle in the Gulf of Mexico in Marathon, Fla., in 2012. The governor is making environmental protection part of his re-election campaign.

Andy Newman/AP/Florida Keys News Bureau

Florida is getting ready for an unusual governor's race. Like incumbent Rick Scott, a Republican, Charlie Crist is running for a second term as governor. In his first term, Crist was also a Republican.

Four years after leaving the executive mansion in Tallahassee to run for the Senate, Crist is back as a Democrat. Crist says one of the important issues in the race is who will better protect the state's natural resources. "It's about making sure that we have somebody who understands that Floridians care about our environment," Crist said at his victory party after securing the Democratic nomination. "We need to have somebody that protects it."

In Florida, protecting the environment has long been a bipartisan concern. Former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush made restoring the Everglades a top priority.

Four years ago, when Rick Scott first ran for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, he was an outsider to Florida politics. Paula Dockery, a Republican state senator at the time, advised him on environmental issues.

Dockery says she talked to Scott about the importance of Florida's water quality, coastline and wildlife preserves to the state's tourism-based economy. "But this governor just didn't understand that," she says. "Maybe it's because he hasn't been in Florida that long. Or maybe it's just because that's not a high priority to him."

After taking office, Scott oversaw the dismantling of a state agency that served as a check on runaway development. He cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the budgets of the state's water management districts and made them more business friendly. He eliminated funding for a state land conservation program.

And there are many other policies that angered environmental advocates.

In southwest Florida, environmental groups fought the Scott administration over permits issued for oil drilling in the Everglades. The issue is now showing up in television ads in Florida run by Next Gen Climate Action, a superPAC run by billionaire Tom Steyer. Steyer is a former investor, now an environmental activist, who says he is working to address climate change. He's expected to spend as much as $10 million in Florida targeting Rick Scott.

Around the time Steyer's group starting running ads, Scott decided to accept an invitation from a group of Florida scientists. Scott has been a climate change skeptic, saying in response to questions, "I'm not a scientist." Scientists from several Florida universities offered to brief him.

After first sending them to his staff, Scott took them up on the offer. That was after opponent Crist requested, and received, his own briefing. As to why he decided to take the meeting, all Scott would say is, "What I'm looking forward [to] with the scientists ... is listening to their solutions."

One of those who briefed the governor is David Hastings, a marine science and chemistry professor at Florida's Eckerd College. After the meeting, Hastings said he didn't see any signs Scott had changed his views on climate change. Hastings said, "To be honest, I don't see him taking leadership in this issue. And I'm tremendously concerned about that."

But on environmental issues, Scott has recently shown signs of a change. He is making protection of the environment part of his re-election campaign. He's pledged new spending on water quality, land preservation and the Everglades.

Eric Draper, who heads Audubon of Florida, one of the state's leading environmental groups, believes the governor means what he says. Draper says it is fair for environmental advocates to be skeptical about Scott's intentions. But there is a practical matter to consider, Draper says: "He could be governor for four more years and we need to get out of him what we can."

There is yet another reason the environment is likely to play an important role this year in Florida's election. Also on the ballot in November is a statewide referendum that would earmark billions of dollars for protecting the state's natural resources. Neither candidate has endorsed it yet, but it is an issue that may help drive turnout of voters who are concerned about the environment.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Florida, in this week's primary, Democrats chose a familiar face to challenge incumbent Republican Governor Rick Scott. Charlie Crist is Florida's former governor and a former Republican. As in most governors' races, education and jobs are key issues. And NPR's Greg Allen reports in Florida another issue has become important - the environment.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It's an unusual race. Like the incumbent Rick Scott, Charlie Crist is running for a second term as governor. In his first term, Crist was a Republican. Four years later, he's back running for governor - this time as a Democrat. After winning the nomination, Crist said one of the issues in the race is who will better protect the state's natural resources.

DEMOCRAT CHARLIE CRIST: It's about making sure that we have somebody who understands that Floridians care about our environment. And we need to have somebody that protects it.

ALLEN: In Florida, for years, protecting the environment was a bipartisan concern. Former Republican Governor Jeb Bush made restoring the Everglades a top priority. Four years ago when Rick Scott first ran for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, he was an outsider to Florida politics. Paula Dockery, a Republican state senator at the time, advised him on environmental issues.

She says she talked to Scott about the importance of Florida’s water quality, coastline and wildlife preserves to the state’s tourism-based economy.

SENATOR PAULA DOCKERY: But this governor just didn't understand that. Maybe it's because he hasn't been in Florida that long or maybe it's just because that's not a high priority to him.

ALLEN: After taking office, Scott oversaw the dismantling of a state agency that served as a check on runaway development. He cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the budgets of the state's water management districts. He eliminated funding for a state land conservation program. And there are many other policies that angered environmental advocates.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We're here to draw the line against dirty drilling in the Everglades.

ALLEN: In Southwest Florida, environmental groups fought the Scott administration over permits issued to drillers in the Everglades. The issue is now showing up in campaign ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEXTGEN CLIMATE ACTION AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Rick Scott drank from a fountain of campaign cash from the company that profited off pollution.

ALLEN: That's an ad run by a NextGen Climate Action, a Super Pac run by billionaire Tom Steyer. He's a former investor - now an environmental activist -working to address climate change. He's expected to spend as much as $10 million in Florida targeting Rick Scott. Around the time Steyer's group started running ads here, Governor Scott decided to accept an invitation from a group of Florida scientists. Scott has been a climate-change skeptic, saying in response to questions I'm not a scientist. In response, the scientists from several Florida universities offered to brief him on climate change. Scott took them up on their offer after opponent Charlie Crist requested and received his own briefing. Before the meeting in Tallahassee, Scott spoke to reporters.

RICK SCOTT: What I’m looking forward to with the scientists today is listening to their solutions.

DAVID HASTINGS: The governor is in a tremendous position for leadership here.

ALLEN: David Hastings is a marine science and chemistry professor at Florida’s Eckerd College and one of the scientists who briefed Scott. He said after the meeting, he didn’t see any signs Scott has changed his views on climate change.

HASTINGS: You know, to be honest, I don't see him taking leadership in this issue. And I'm tremendously concerned about that.

ALLEN: But now, Governor Scott is making protecting the environment part of his re-election campaign. He’s pledged new spending on water quality, land preservation and the Everglades. Eric Draper, who heads Audubon of Florida, one of the state’s leading environmental groups, says it’s fair to be skeptical about Scott’s intentions. But he says for environmental advocates, there’s a practical matter to consider.

ERIC DRAPER: He could be governor for four more years and we need to get out of him what we can.

ALLEN: There’s another reason the environment is likely to play an important role this year in Florida’s election. Also on the ballot in November is a statewide referendum that would earmark billions of dollars for protecting the state’s natural resources. Neither candidate has endorsed it yet, but it’s an issue that may help drive turn-out of voters who are concerned about the environment. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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