TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – One of state's most-powerful business groups is gearing up to fight a proposal at the Florida Constitution Revision Commission that the group argues would lead to increased litigation about environmental issues.
Associated Industries of Florida announced Tuesday it has hired attorneys from the Gunster law firm to battle a proposal filed by Constitution Revision Commission member Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch that would give Floridians more legal standing when environmental problems occur.
The 37-member commission, which meets every 20 years, is reviewing proposed constitutional amendments that could go on the 2018 ballot.
Thurlow-Lippisch's proposal is one of 103 filed by commission members. The commission will hold four days of committee meetings next week to review some of the proposals and is expected in the coming months to narrow the list of measures that will go on the ballot.
Associated Industries, trying to make a a preemptive strike, contends the language in the proposal by Thurlow-Lippisch -- an appointee of Senate President Joe Negron, a fellow Martin County resident -- is “extremely vague” and would “unleash unwarranted litigation” that would drive up business costs.
“This vague amendment would effectively replace the comprehensive and well thought out regulatory system we have in place today with a piecemeal approach that is decided on a case-by-case basis by the courts,” Associated Industries President and CEO Tom Feeney said. “Decades of Florida statute already exists to protect our citizens and their right to clean air and water. This amendment would do nothing more than create harmful uncertainty and open thousands of Florida businesses and private citizens up to endless litigation.”
The Gunster firm, which has a long history of representing U.S. Sugar, once employed Negron. Negron left the firm this year to avoid a possible conflict of interest as he pushed for construction of a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.
The proposal by Thurlow-Lippisch declares that everyone has a right to clean air and water, which includes the ability to “enforce this right against any party, public or private, subject to reasonable limitations, as provided by law.”
In a blog post Nov. 8, five days after filing the proposal, Thurlow-Lippisch argued that existing language in the state Constitution is “vague” and that Florida statutes give environmental permit-holders standing over citizens.
“So a citizen is not at liberty to sue if a polluting entity is causing environmental destruction that is acting or conducting operations pursuant to a currently valid permit protected by a state agency,” she wrote. “And if someone attempts to sue anyway, they have no real standing in a Florida court of law.”
Thurlow-Lippisch pointed to a sinkhole that opened last year at a Mosaic phosphate plant in Polk County and years of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District discharges of water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie Estuary, which flows around her community.
“What if, is now reality. Yes, permit holders should be `protected,' nonetheless, having a valid permit should not be a right to infringe on the health, safety, and welfare of Florida citizens,” Thurlow-Lippisch wrote. “Florida citizens and their environment co-exist. When necessary, citizens should have the right to fight for a clean and healthy environment.”
Thurlow-Lippisch is a former Sewall's Point commissioner who also wants voters next year to add an elected commissioner of environmental protection to the state Cabinet.
The proposal under fire by AIF is scheduled to go before the commission's Judicial Committee on Nov. 28. If it is approved, the next step would be the General Provisions Committee.