This is the time of year when state Sen. Alan Hays usually tries to turn one of his extreme opinions into law by filing a bill that the Legislature has to consider with a straight face.
Session 2013: The Umatilla Republican does not disappoint.
Hays has offered bills in the past that delighted his insurance and development backers but would have left his constituents seething. The worst among them was a bill that would have deregulated the insurance industry, launching the cost of homeowner premiums into the ozone. Of course, that one failed.
His explanation for even filing it?
"We need to take care of those businesses already here in Florida. Let's make life good for them," he said.
The winner of the annual competition for Hays' Most Bizarre Bill is SB 584, an absurd measure that seeks to prevent the state, counties and cities from buying any more conservation land than they already own unless they sell an equal amount of publicly held property.
Yep, that's it, folks. Sell some of that "useless" property you're just hanging onto for no reason if you want another park. You've hit the cap.
Never mind that Florida voters consistently and overwhelmingly support taxing themselves to buy conservation and park property as a legacy for the next generation. Never mind that the bill requires local governments to commit funds for future years of maintenance, which may not be deemed legal if challenged. Never mind that Florida is going to grow, which will create the need for more parks.
This bill is the sum total of one person's ill-informed and cynical opinion. Vetting such arrogant nonsense is not the purpose of the Legislature.
Hays didn't respond to an email and a phone call seeking comment. However, he told reporters in Tallahassee, "I was just astounded to learn what percentage of land that is owned by governmental entities in the state. That's what really got me started on it."
Too bad Hays didn't dig deeper.
Nearly 28 percent of the Florida's total land area is considered to be "public." That sounds like an excessive amount, but consider that the properties include state and national parks and forests, military bases (of which Florida has a considerable number), highways, prisons, airports, two vast bombing ranges, all lake bottoms and the massive Kennedy Space Center. Environmental groups say the true amount of conservation and parkland is under 15 percent.
Of course, organizations that care about the environment and about leaving a bequest to their children and grandchildren are freaking out. And Lake residents have a right to be doubly angry.
One of the land-buying projects that has been under way for nearly a decade would create a wildlife corridor beginning in east Lake near the Wekiva River Basin and going north to the Ocala National Forest. Consider that project done.
And then there's 55,000 acres in the Green Swamp that is on several lists for purchase to protect the state's main water source, the Floridan Aquifer. Not happening.
Hays is looking at the amount of money the state is spending on conservation and land management without considering the benefits that the public is getting, said Eric Draper, chairman of the Florida Forever Coalition, a land-buying program, and executive director of Audubon Florida. Two other big environmental groups, the Nature Conservancy and 1000 Friends of Florida, also have raised objections.
Draper said public ownership of land near springs and around Lake Apopka helps improve water quality and helps protect future water supplies in a growing area. Wildlife in Florida depends on public lands for survival as habitat gets taken over by subdivisions.
"And as Florida becomes more urbanized, we need parks, we need places to take kids to play and go walk in the woods, and we need access to water," Draper said. "The only way to ensure that is public lands."
Hays has said publicly that his goal isn't to stop conservation purchases. But, of course, his bill would, and it's hard to imagine Hays wouldn't be aware of the real-world effect.
Said Draper: "He wants an inventory of public lands, and any time there is a proposal to buy more land, you have to sell land. It's basically 'sell a park to buy a park.' That's what his proposal is."
Chances seem decent that heads more sensible than Hays' will prevail, and his bill will die in a committee. But that's beside the point. The limited resources of organizations that care about the environment will be fully employed to defeat the measure. That means they won't be doing what they should during this legislative season — working to improve protections for Florida's water resources and wildlife and tying to establish top-drawer parks for the public.
This is a useless, diversionary tactic designed to take time away from real issues.
Lake County, you elected Hays. Does he make you proud?
Lritchie@tribune.com. Her blog is online at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/laurenonlake. Lauren invites you to join her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/laurenonlake