Glades, Cat Fund Burden McCain

Jun 9, 2008

Tampa Tribune--June 7, 2008

The Tampa Tribune

TAMPA – In a three-day tour of Florida this week, John McCain sought to set the tone for his campaign against Barack Obama, showing himself as a reformer distinct from President Bush, but more experienced and prudent than his opponent.

While he was here, however, McCain had to answer for positions he has taken against the interests of Florida on two key state issues: a bill including Everglades restoration money and a national catastrophic insurance fund.

Democrats pounced on both, emphasizing that McCain sided with Bush on both issues while Obama sides with Floridians, among whom Everglades restoration and a “cat fund” to help stabilize insurance rates are popular causes.

McCain answered critics on the cat fund Thursday, saying he hopes to accomplish the same goal without setting up “a new big-government bureaucracy.”

Then as he made a stop in the Everglades on Friday to showcase his environmentalist credentials, a distinction he hopes to make between himself and Bush, his campaign found itself defending his opposition to the Everglades measure.

The bill, the Water Resources Development Act of 2007, had been carefully orchestrated by Florida members of Congress to rescue the languishing restoration project.

The state-federal program, intended as a 50-50 split, has gone mostly unfunded at the federal level since its 2000 inception while Floridians have spent more than $2 billion, said Thom Rumberger a Republican and president of the Everglades Foundation.

Florida Republicans as well as Democrats strongly supported the bill, including McCain’s top Sunshine State allies, Gov. Charlie Crist and U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez.

But McCain opposed it and, when Bush vetoed it, urged colleagues to sustain the veto. The veto was overridden, and the bill authorized the first significant federal spending for the project, Everglades advocates say.

Crist called the passage “one step closer to our goal of restoring the South Florida ecosystem” and thanked the Florida delegation for “tirelessly working to get this legislation to the finish line.”

‘Whatever Is Necessary’ For Glades

McCain insists he has been and remains strongly for Everglades restoration. “I am committed to the preservation of the Everglades,” he told a group of newspaper editors Wednesday in Orlando. “I will do whatever is necessary to do so.”

What he opposed, he said, was not the $2 billion for the Everglades, but the rest of the $23 billion bill, which he said was pork-laden. He said he would have supported a stand-alone bill for the Everglades project.

In dueling conference calls with reporters Friday morning, Obama marshaled former Florida senator and longtime Everglades defender Bob Graham to criticize McCain’s position, while McCain mustered U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, whose district includes the Everglades, in his defense.

“To say he was against the bill because he’s against Everglades restoration is totally not true – an outright fabrication,” Diaz-Balart said. Diaz-Balart acknowledged he voted for the bill, but said he did so “having to hold my nose because of the issues Sen. McCain rightly points out.”

Some Florida Republican House members sided with Bush and McCain against the bill – Adam Putnam of Bartow, C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores, Tom Feeney of Oviedo, Cliff Stearns of Ocala and Jeff Miller of Chumuckla.

Putnam said he also favors the restoration project but voted against it for the same reasons as McCain. McCain’s defenders noted that an Obama national co-chairman, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, also voted to sustain the veto after initially supporting the bill, objecting to last-minute earmarks.

David Jenkins, head of a Republican environmentalist organization, added, “It’s not that Sen. McCain is against these specific projects, it’s the way the process happens,” referring to water resources authorization bills.

“Projects that have little or no merit get to the top of the list and take funding away from projects that have merit,” Jenkins said.

But the Obama backers said this case is not so simple. Graham said no water resources bill has passed since the project’s 2000 inception. The result, he said, is support for spending Florida’s share of the Everglades project is declining. “If the marriage of the state and the federal government were broken, the project would collapse,” Graham said.

Extra Ammunition

McCain also handed his opponents extra ammunition by referring to the bill during the editors gathering as an “omnibus appropriations” bill, a spending bill that includes hundreds of billions of dollars. Actually, it was an authorization measure that didn’t spend money, only authorized projects.

Advocates of the projects still “have to fight for the appropriation,” said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, who got a new passing lane for the Port of Tampa included in the bill.

Graham said that made it “exactly the bill that McCain said he would have voted for” and called it “a very serious misunderstanding by Sen. McCain” as to what the bill did.

“Sen. McCain made it very clear that he didn’t quite have a grasp of the facts on this issue,” said Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan.