By Joseph Bonasia, Florida Rights of Nature Network
Increasingly, environmental issues are democracy issues. This is true in Florida where the state legislature has a growing habit of undermining the home rule rights of local governments. Recently signed into law, the Clean Waterways Act is a perfect example.
On election day in November, Orange County citizens will do what no other Floridians have ever done: vote whether to legally recognize Rights of Nature by passing the Wekiva and Econlockhatchee Rivers Bill of Rights (WEBOR).
This citizen-driven amendment to the county charter is necessary because both rivers are officially designated as “impaired,” and because state law has failed to fix their pollution problems. By legally recognizing the right of the rivers “to exist and to be protected against Pollution,” and that all county residents “have a right to clean water,” WEBOR will change the legal ground upon which environmental battles are fought.
But the right of citizens to vote on these rights is endangered by The Clean Waterways Act, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law on June 30. Furtively buried in the 111-page law is a provision that preemptively makes unlawful the power of local governments throughout Florida to pass Rights of Nature laws and, astonishingly, denies citizens any rights regarding the natural world, such as the right to clean water.
Speak Up Wekiva, a Rights of Nature organization, has filed suit in federal court contesting the constitutionality of the legislation.
The concept and exercise of community self-government dates to the Mayflower Compact, adopted over 150 years before Thomas Jefferson codified its principles in the Declaration of Independence. In the 1800s, however, corporations began winning legal rights of personhood. Nowadays, the game is rigged in their favor and against citizens and the home rule powers of local governments.
In 2014, researchers at Princeton and Northwestern universities concluded that most laws do not reflect the will of the people, but rather “tend towards the wishes of corporations and business and professional associations.” This supports what the public has long realized: corporate interests help fund political campaigns and in return get the laws they want. Plastic bag bans are a case in point.
Banning single-use plastic bags made perfect environmental sense to citizens in Coral Gables, but after a three-year legal battle with the Federation of Florida Retailers, they lost. An appellate court ruled that the city’s ban violated a state law that preempts local governments from enacting ordinances banning single-use plastics.
To former Coral Gables Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli, preemptions are an “assault” on the “ability of people to be governed by those elected officials that are closest to them, rather than the people in Tallahassee that have nothing to do with us.”
“Disgusting,” Gainesville District 3 City Commissioner David Arreola said of the outcome of the legal dispute. (Gainesville began pursuing its own bag ban.) “When the people wanted to use the democratic process, those corporations used their money to suppress the democratic process by lobbying and paying off elected officials.”
When Florida’s Supreme Court declined to hear the case, corporations won, democracy lost, and the rights of the people and the health of the planet were further eroded.
Rights of Nature laws are bigger than any bag ban. They are the corrective to Florida’s impotent regulatory attempts to protect and preserve our waterways. And, when it comes to environmental matters, they threaten the stranglehold corporate interests have on our political system, which is why this preemption was sneaked into the Clean Waterways Act.
Rights of Nature organizations, one state legislator claims, “are attempting to bypass county commissions” by working to place laws directly before the people on election day. But when “all political power is inherent in the people,” as stated in the Florida Constitution, going straight to the people isn’t bypassing anyone.
Instead, it is corporate interests and legislators who seek to deny the will of the people through laws like the Clean Waterways Act. They anticipate voters, tired of a rigged regulatory system, will pass game-changing Rights of Nature laws.
Speak Up Wekiva’s lawsuit aims to return the democratic process in Florida to the most fundamental of democratic principles: government of the people, by the people, for the people.
We can govern ourselves, thank you.
Joseph Bonasia is the SWFL Regional Director for the Florida Rights of Nature Network.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.