NOTE: LEGISLATURE; MUG OF SYMINGTON
PHOENIX – Gov. Fife Symington used his veto stamp last night on a bill some critics had dubbed the “polluter’s protection act.’
The governor said he supported the bill’s intent – to offer immunity and secrecy to businesses that agreed to clean up violations discovered during self-audits on compliance with environmental laws.
But after three days of deliberation with the bill’s opponents – notably state Department of Environmental Quality Director Ed Fox – and supporters in the business lobby, Symington and his staff last night publicly hashed out the political ramifications of passing a bill with major technical problems.
Specifically, Symington was concerned that the secrecy privilege was too broad and had too many loopholes.
In the end, staff voted 7-6 in favor of signing the bill because of the policy direction of using incentives instead of a club to regulate environmental compliance.
Still, Symington said his “alarm bells’ were clamoring.
With environmental groups already gearing up to put the issue on the 1996 ballot, Symington said he feared the bill would go the same route as private property rights. That bill was likewise referred to the ballot by a petition drive and defeated by voters in November.
“It had flaws the opposition jumped on. It was an important principle, but it got torn apart by voters, and any effort to fix it today is looked at like, `Oh, you’re violating the little people,’ ‘ Symington said.
Symington’s community affairs adviser, Chuck Coughlin, said flaws might inspire doubt in the “moderate squish vote’ that would be pivotal in making up the 51 percent of voters the proposal would need to pass.
Others on staff, including legislative liaison Lisa Hauser, suggested the governor could sign the bill, let petition gatherers collect thousands of signatures necessary to put it on the ballot, then repeal the bill next session and replace it with new language, nullifying the original signatures and jeopardizing the ballot initiative.
But Symington said bill pushers should have listened to his staff earlier in the game to go for a more moderate proposal instead of trying to “shoot the moon.’
Symington sent a memo to bill sponsors on April 10, offering a compromise he could support. The compromise, which would have broken the secrecy circle if a closed court found a compelling need, was never heard.
But bill supporters blamed the defeat on Fox, who last night denied rumors mentioned by several Symington staffers that he threatened to quit if the governor brushed off his violent opposition.
“I think he has deferred too much to Ed Fox. Because he feels weak in the (environmental) area, he has deferred too much to staff,’ said Sen. Jim Buster, R-Yuma, the bill’s sponsor.
Buster said even though he was disappointed, he likely will try to pass the bill again next session. But, he admitted, that might be more difficult now.
“The fact the governor vetoed it now puts a stigma on the bill. Give me a break,’ Buster said.
Buster said Symington’s willingness to sign the Freon bill showed a preference for “symbolism over substance.’