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Environment Dominates Race For House District 9

The aroma of artisan coffee clings to the air as local businessmen and women in chinos, and oystermen and women in blue jeans and T-shirts, stare intently at power point projection.

Up front, Tallahassee Community College President Jim Murdaugh brags about the new Wakulla Environmental Institute as an oyster aquaculture scientific forum is about to begin.

The facility is a marvel of modern science. It is designed to produce more solar power than it uses, and live alongside prescribed burns needed to maintain the wilderness that surrounds it.

TCC’s newest jewel is tucked in a massive forest 40 minutes south of Tallahassee.  But it owes its existence to a 4.5 million dollar legislative appropriation. It’s the kind of bacon the next District 9 Representative is going to be expected to bring home.

The race pits frontrunner Loranne Ausley, a Democrat who held the seat from 2000 to 2008, against Republican Jim Messer. Both are attorneys, and both grew up enjoying Tallahassee’s great outdoors. Both list state workers and the environment as top issues.

Ausley worries about controversial new water quality standards adopted by Governor Rick Scott’s Environmental Regulation Commission.

“We have some of the cleanest drinking water in the state and we need to protect that at all costs and I worry about the recent decisions made by the ERC that could potentially put toxins in our drinking water.”

Both candidates support a massive proposal to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee. The idea is to store and cleanse polluted runoff responsible for massive toxic algae blooms in Martin and St. Lucie counties and Southwest Florida.

“As a lawyer, I’ve seldom found that if you ignore a problem things get better. And I think with our state, if we ignore causality, if we ignore cause and effect, it’s not going to get better. And I applaud Senator Negron for coming up with a bold plan.”

Messer insists there’s enough money to deal with the Lake Okeechobee emergency and local environmental priorities, even in a tight budget year. Like Ausley, he supports removing the septic tanks that threaten the Wakulla Springs basin.

“In Leon County, because people here do have a love for the county and a love for the environment, that the situation is not as dire as it is in South Florida and we can do more with the funds that we have.”

Ausley says she agrees, in that the environment should not be partisan, or either or..

“To me, our natural resources are an economic development issue. People are not going to come to the state of Florida, two things, if we don’t have an educated workforce, and it is our environment, our natural resources, that attract people to come here, to bring their businesses here.”

Last year, before Negron announced Lake Okeechobee a priority, House and Senate leaders put a rewrite of state water policy at the top of their legislative agenda. Both Messer and Ausley say they want to keep the trend alive.

A Miami native, former WFSU reporter Jim Ash is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, most of it in print. He has been a member of the Florida Capital Press Corps since 1992.