After it was revealed last month that Mosaic had withheld information for weeks about the massive sinkhole at their New Wales facility in Polk County which spilled 215 million gallons of contaminated water into the Florida aquifer, the Conservation Florida Voters attacked Dana Young for receiving campaign contributions from the phosphate corporation — and the fact that it’s vice president of public affairs co-hosted a fundraiser for her last year.
“Rep. Dana Young’s environmental record is as dirty as her campaign contributions,” said Jonathan Webber, deputy director of Florida Conservation Voters. “Her cozy relationship with big polluters like Mosaic shows how out of touch she is with the everyday needs of Tampa’s working families.”
Young’s campaign team fired back immediately, and she’s now criticizing the phosphate company — and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection — for their tardiness in coming clean with the public about the spill.
“I think it’s disgraceful that you can have an environmental disaster like this that truly can harm people’s health, to pour pollutants into the aquifer that could affect people’s well water,” she told FloridaPolitics last week. “I just don’t think there’s ANY excuse for not having a requirement that surrounding neighbors be immediately notified.”
A Mosaic employee discovered the water loss caused by the sinkhole Aug. 27 and the state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was notified the next day, as required by Florida law. However, homeowners near the facility weren’t notified by Mosaic or the DEP until Sept. 19, after news broke about the sinkhole. The DEP said Mosaic wasn’t legally obligated to because there was no evidence of threat to groundwater or off-site movement. But Gov. Rick Scott said the law was “outdated.”
Young says she’s extremely disappointed by the DEP’s response.
“They have an obligation to protect the public here in Florida. That is their role, and they knew for a long time what was going on there and they did not see fit to tell anybody, and I think that is absolutely unacceptable, and that we need to pass legislation in this session to clarify the duty to report by not only the permittees like Mosaic, but the state departments and local governments as well.”
Florida Conservation Voters also has criticized Young for voting for HB 191, the controversial fracking bill that passed in the House of Representatives last spring but died in the Senate. Critics seized on the provision that would strip local governments of the power to prevent the practice, in which large amounts of water, sand, and chemicals are pumped into the ground using high pressure to extract oil and gas deposits from rock formations. It also would require a comprehensive study to determine the effects of fracking in the state and establish a regulatory framework.
Environmental groups have depicted it as an “anti-fracking” bill and have accused those who voted for it of being pro-fracking, but some Republican House members running for re-election have stressed that they supported the vote because it put a moratorium on the practice, and say that they don’t actually support the procedure.
“I’m completely against it anywhere in Florida, ” Young says about fracking, and says it’s “hurtful” that people think otherwise. “I am an environmentalist, ” she vows. “I always have been and obviously fracking is not consistent with my philosophy, nor is it consistent with the geology and makeup with our state.”
The Nature Conservancy in Florida thinks so — the group announced Monday they were awarding Young with their 2016 Legislative Achievement Award.
The criticism from the environmental groups are an indication of the forces that would like to see her out of the Legislature next year, as Young faces the race of her political career.
After winning a contested battle against the late Stacy Frank for the House District 60 seat in 2010, the Democrats failed to nominate a candidate to oppose her in her re-election bids in 2012 and 2014, before recruiting attorney Bob Buesing to oppose her in the Senate District 18 race this year.
The race is expected to be close. A poll taken in early August showed Young and Buesing in a tie at 36 percent, though it didn’t include the two independents in the race, Joe Redner and Sheldon Upthegrove.
When she’s not working in the Legislature, Young says her full time gig is being a mom to her two daughters (one of whom is a freshman in college this year). An attorney, she says doesn’t practice much these days, but does use her legal expertise to help draft bills. Young turns 52 the day after the November election.
Although she has moved up to become House Majority Leader in the past two years in the Legislature, Buesing has said an internal poll his campaign conducted this summer shows Young’s name recognition isn’t much stronger than his own, perhaps because her previous re-election bids have been under the radar. However, one thing is certain — she will not be outspent in the race. Young has raised $727,443 in her main campaign account, and her political committee, “Friends of Dana Young,” has raised another million dollars. Buesing has raised $244,737.
When asked to recount the legislation she’s most proud of, Young chooses to talk about two issues that have widespread support – though neither have actually gone as far as she hopes they will.
One is her work to reduce the number of non-driving violations that prompt Floridians to have their drivers licenses suspended. A recent state study said the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles had suspended 1.3 million driver’s licenses in fiscal year 2012-13, and 167,000 were for non-driving reasons, mainly failure to pay fines or court fees or child support. A bill she co-sponsored with Democrat Darryl Rouson in the House last session would have reduced the number of offenses for which license suspension is prescribed and prohibit suspensions for those who show in an court an inability to pay fines and fees.
Another bill that has frustrated her over the years but which she is determined to get passed is enact a ban on greyhound racing in the state. And she’s recently cut an ad that did make her a favorite among the craft beer crowd for her support against “Big Beer” distributors in the whole 64-ounce growler battle.
Young has been a consistent “Nay” vote when Medicaid expansion has come up in the Legislature, and Buesing has been vocal in criticizing her about it. She responds with the generic Florida House GOP line on the subject — it’s a broken system that doesn’t work.
“I try to be for commonsense government — that’s my motto — and there is no common sense in expanding a program that isn’t working,” she says.
In 2015, the Florida Senate approved a proposal by Fernandina Beach Republican Aaron Bean that would have established a state-run private insurance exchange to state residents earning less than $16,000, or about $33,000 for a family of four. It included a work requirement and a monthly copay. Because it was questionable whether the federal government would approve the plan, Young says it was a no-go in the House. She says if the federal government is “bound and determined to give us money” she would like them to provide block grants to let the state decide how to aid some of the uninsured in Florida. “I think that would be a win-win for Florida,” she says.
Young supports the controversial Tampa Bay Express toll lanes project, though she emphasizes that she was not aware of the portion of the FDOT plan to toll an existing lane of the Howard Frankland Bridge, which she says is just not acceptable (On Monday, the FDOT said that they would no longer take away a free lane from the Bridge when it’s rebuilt in 2019).
Although Mayor Bob Buckhorn unsuccessfully lobbied Tampa Bay area lawmakers a few years ago to consider allowing large municipalities the power to hold their own referendums to pay for transportation projects, the idea has resurfaced this year among some local Democrats, frustrated that the Go Hillsborough plan died before ever coming before the voters.
Young is one of those local legislators who has no interest in giving Tampa that power.
“This is one of the sore subjects between me and my friend Bob Buckhorn,” she says. Recalling how the 2010 Moving Hillsborough Forward transit tax failed miserably in Hillsborough County but received a majority inside of Tampa, Young says that measure was half-baked, and if the city would have passed it “we would now be saddled with has been universally termed a terrible plan.”
“And so for me, I think that the county provides appropriate safeguards on taxpayer dollars to make sure that whatever plan is appropriate,” she says, adding it’s one of the few area that she disagrees with the mayor.
Young was a major supporter of Jeb Bush’s failed presidential run, but says now that it’s a “binary choice,” she’s with Donald Trump.
“It’s just a clear picture of how fed up people are with the way things are being done in Washington D.C.,” she says about the rise of the Manhattan real estate mogul in the presidential race. “People feel that they’ve been left behind, people feel forgotten, people feel lied to,” adding that “It’s a phenomenon of the voter that doesn’t feel that what they think matters.”
The Senate District race takes place on Nov. 8.