TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A proposed constitutional amendment that would redefine legal standing for Floridians when environmental problems occur was put on hold Tuesday as opposition mounts from powerful business groups.
With critics arguing the measure is too vague and would create legal gridlock, Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, a member of the state Constitution Revision Commission, said she requested more time to work on her proposal (P 23), as it appeared on the verge of being voted down by the commission's Judiciary Committee.
“The number one thing I'm trying to do is to keep this thing alive,” Thurlow-Lippisch, a former mayor of the Martin County city of Sewall's Point, said after Tuesday's committee meeting. “If it had died today, it would be gone. So I'm trying to keep it alive, I'm trying to work on it. But at the end of the day I will not just lean over and say we'll take out all the tough stuff and just put in flower language again.”
The committee agreed, before postponing the measure until January, to amend it to more narrowly define that people seeking to challenge environmental rules must be Florida residents.
The change, backed by Thurlow-Lippisch, still wasn't enough for opponents who argued the overall proposed constitutional amendment would lead to increased litigation on environmental issues.
“No longer would standing require a particularized interest, but rather a general interest in order to bring a legal challenge,” said lobbyist David Childs, who represents groups such as Farmland Reserve and the Florida Chamber of Commerce. “It creates kind of a rule of one: one resident amongst our 20 million plus residents would have a constitutional right to oppose the road, the row crop, the power plant, the list goes on based upon a purported infringement even if the litigant is in Pensacola and the project is in Key Largo.”
William Large, president of the business-backed Florida Justice Reform Institute, said the language of the proposal, even amended, remains purposefully ambiguous.
“It removes the Legislature from ability to pass legislation with respect to environmental issues,” Large said. “Likewise, it removes the rule-making process from agencies being able to use the statutory authority created by the Legislature to pursue rule-making with respect to environmental issues.”
The 37-member Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years, is reviewing proposed constitutional amendments that could go on the 2018 ballot.
On Monday, a group of 28 state business groups announced their opposition to Thurlow-Lippisch's proposal. Among the groups signing onto a letter were Associated Industries of Florida, Florida Citrus Mutual, Florida Farm Bureau, the Florida Forestry Association, the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, the Florida Home Builders Association, the Florida Ports Council and the Florida Retail Federation
“By granting this broad right to challenge any government entity, business or private citizen --- even if they are in full compliance with existing laws or valid permits --- CRC Proposal 23 would allow delay or defeat of currently legal activities in our state,” the business groups said in the letter. “This amendment circumvents existing avenues to address concerns over air and water quality and instead encourages frivolous lawsuits, which would inevitably drive up business costs and threaten future economic development in Florida.”
Thurlow-Lippisch, who was appointed to the commission by Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said she has tried to work with the business groups. She said she filed the proposal because the Constitution might appear friendly to the environment, but often offers contradictory language that nullifies preservation efforts.
“Florida should have higher expectations than we do. We're the best state in the nation in most things, but not the environment,” said Thurlow-Lippisch, whose community has been at the center of a fight against declining water quality, including outbreaks of toxic algae, in the St. Lucie Estuary.
“I bet if you look at permitting since 1998, it's become less stringent instead of more stringent,” she added.