[UPDATE] - 11-17 8:15AM --
A six-month delay in the implementation of a septic tank inspection that riled several Panhandle lawmakers was easily approved Tuesday by both chamber of the Florida Legislature, setting up an increasingly likely full repeal come regular session this spring.
On separate 38-1 and 112-6 votes, the Legislature put off requiring property owners to pay for inspections on 2.6 million septic tanks in the state every five years, a “costly mandate” that critics said prompted them to include the measure in a special session largely devoted to overriding vetoes penned by Gov. Charlie Crist.
The septic tank inspection requirement, which opponents say could cost property owners $500 per inspection, was part of a larger environmental bill scheduled to kick in Jan. 1 to improve water quality in Florida’s freshwater springs. Crist signed the springs bill (SB 550) in the spring, so it took a new bill to delay its scheduled Jan. 1 implementation until July.
“This legislation…stops the implementation of a costly mandate in septic tank evaluation in order to allow the legislature to review the financial impact of this program and its scientific necessity on the people of Florida,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, during debate on the floor of the Florida Senate. “Delaying the implementation date for six months…would allow the Senate and House of Representatives to readdress this issue in regular session.”
Gaetz has made it clear he intends to press for a full repeal of the septic tank inspections. Before the vote, he told the News Service he was “hopeful for a repeal.”
“Today the objective (was) to stop the implementation,” he said. “The second step will be to do what should have been done last year, and that’s to have to full and open public debates and discussions about the issue
The votes were clearly there to be had Tuesday, a sharp reversal from a strong vote in the other direction at the close of the regular session in the spring, when the bill containing the septic tank inspections was approved 30-3. The measure was designed to protect Florida's natural springs and waterways, which are often threatened by septic tank overflow.
Opponents such as Gaetz argued the new standard was quietly tucked into the larger bill before it went before lawmakers this spring, an account which has been disputed by the bill’s sponsor, former Sen. Lee Constantine.
Constantine last week sought to clear the air over the controversial provision by writing a letter to his former colleagues in the Florida Senate, and his name was invoked in defending the bill by the lone senator to vote against the delay, Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole .
“This was a large part of the springs bill that was about five years in developing due to Sen.(Burt) Saunders and Sen. Constantine,” Jones said. “With septic tanks being the number one cause, or certainly ranking, of pollution to our springs and our rivers, I’m concerned about taking this action at this time.”
Jones disputed opponents contentions the inspections would cost more than $500, saying the price would actually be about $185. Gaetz countered that the law would require inspections and “pump outs” of tanks that did not pass inspections.
“There are those in this body who believe that the mandate might be good, there are others who believe that it ought to be repealed, and there are still others who believe – along with the industry that pushed the mandate – that it was a bridge too far,” said Gaetz, who added there might be “a less intrusive, less expensive approach.”
There was more opposition to delaying the septic tanks inspections in the Florida House, but passions there were not nearly as strained. The chamber voted to approve the delay with little discussion, and House Speaker Dean Cannon only committed Tuesday to supporting the delay for now.
“All we are doing for the purpose of today is postponing the implementation date,” he said. “One of the principles that President Haridopolos and I agree on before we even considered the special session was that we shouldn’t engage in lengthy, substantive policy debates that would be appropriate for the full committee process.”
Haridopolos said there was “nothing whatsoever” that could stop Crist from striking back at the Legislature by vetoing the delay, but said “he hasn’t given any indication that he has heartburn over postponing the implementation date.”
Without a beat, Cannon said “if he chooses to, certainly we’ll work it,” reflecting a sharply changed reality as Republicans hold supermajorities in the House and Senate.
Emboldened by Tuesday’s vote, Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, said Tuesday she had already filed a bill to fully undo the inspection requirement for the spring.
“Eliminating this government overreach remains my top priority,” she said in a statement Tuesday. “Today I filed legislation to repeal this burdensome requirement altogether in the 2011 regular session. Government should be lifting financial burdens from homeowners, not placing more on them. I’m committed to making sure that some commonsense is put back in our environmental regulations.”
Tallahassee, Florida -- 11-12-2010 --
The push to weaken septic tank legislation approved last spring by lawmakers is dividing the usually clubby Florida Senate, with a former lawmaker bristling at a rising Senate leader who has accused him of misleading the chamber about the measure.
Former Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, term-limited after 18 years in the Legislature, fired off a letter to lawmakers this week saying he was insulted by their plans to rewrite a measure he saw as the capstone of his legislative career.
When Constantine said farewell to the Florida Senate last April, fellow lawmakers framed the bill (SB 550) and presented it to him. Now Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is leading the drive to send Constantine’s crowning legislation to the scrap heap.
“When I entered into public office, I committed to do all that I could to treat people fairly and tell them the truth,” Constantine wrote in a letter to all senators this week. “In the last month of my service, there has been an unfortunate attempt to tarnish this record regarding the passage of SB 550.
“As my final action before I leave, I feel compelled to set the record straight. Whether you agree with the policy or not, it is important to understand the history on this important piece of legislation,” he continued. “The septic tank inspection program as part of SB 550 arose over the course of many months. The language was discussed at length with many interested parties and individual senators.”
But Gaetz, who along with other lawmakers in the Panhandle, have been under fire from voters concerned about the potential costs of a strict state inspection program, disputed Constantine’s account.
Gaetz on Friday called Constantine’s push back “a wonderful piece of science fiction.”
“I think Sen. Constantine failed to include in his letter conversations he had with senators, including me, in which he did not completely or thoroughly explain the impact of this amendment that he added,” said Gaetz, in line to succeed incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. “He is entitled to his opinion. He’s a former senator. God bless him, I wish him well.”
The legislation is set to take effect in January. But Gaetz wants lawmakers in next week’s special session to delay the program’s start until July, to effectively buy more time. Gaetz and Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, who is sponsoring the delay push in the House, want lawmakers to repeal the inspection program completely in next spring’s regular session.
“Our plan is we would stop the implementation now and be able to do in regular session what sadly we were unable to do last year: have a full discussion in the open on the effects of this mandate,” Gaetz said.
The wide-ranging bill is designed to protect Florida’s natural springs and waterways which are often threatened by septic tank overflow. Beginning in January, the legislation would require inspections of the state’s 2.6 million septic tanks once every five years. Opponents say the measure could cost residents $500 or more per-inspection, and they claim the new standards was quietly tucked into the springs protection bill before it went before lawmakers this spring.
Constantine vehemently denied any secrecy in the letter he sent to lawmakers.
“So to set the record straight: 1) There was no strike-all amendment. 2) Not only did I explain the septic tank inspection program on the floor, I answered questions about the program from three different senators on two separate days. 3) Never… NEVER, was there any intent to hide or cover up this program in the bill,” he wrote.
The septic tank rewrite is expected to be part of next week’s special session, slated to begin on the heels of Tuesday’s organizational session. Lawmakers have lined up for override nine bills vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist, and a budget provision he struck down.
But incoming House Rules Chairman Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, told newly elected lawmakers this week that not all measures identified by legislative leaders would come up during the special session. That gives leaders some wiggle room if – as they earlier said – want to address only measures unlikely to draw opposition.
Still, Gaetz said he had no reason to believe the septic tank inspection delay would not come up for a vote. He would not, however, speculate on how that vote would fair. At least one other incoming senator from the Panhandle, Greg Evers, R-Baker, has also called for a delay.
“I’m never confident that the votes are there on anything,” Gaetz said. “I wouldn’t predict the outcome of a resolution on Mother’s Day.” However, he quickly added, “we’re certainly hopeful.”
The other bills being considered for veto overrides next week are: 545, 569, 981, 1516, 1565,1842, 5603, 5611, and 1385. The septic tank bill is the lone piece of new legislation being considered next week.