TALLAHASSEE - A panel of state lawmakers on Friday approved a bonus pool for the Department of Environmental Protection that environmental advocates say would reward workers who rushed development permits through the system.
"You get a huge bonus - really? - for letting polluters get off the hook," said David Guest, Florida managing attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law group.
Planned bonuses, which department officials say will simply reward exemplary job performance, will range from just less than $1,000 to $5,000. The first approved bonuses apply to work previously done.
"They've just created a strong economic incentive to rubber-stamp permit applications, and the broader picture here is a further undermining of our environmental protections," Guest said.
Since Gov. Rick Scott took office, environmentalists have faulted him for erring on the side of business, job growth and development, and against environmental regulations.
The Legislative Budget Commission OK'd the bonus pool Friday, with only Rep. Mark Pafford, a West Palm Beach Democrat, voting against it. The 14-member panel handles requests for mid-course corrections to the state's spending blueprint.
Jeff Littlejohn, the DEP's deputy secretary for regulatory programs, asked to use $571,961 for the bonuses out of $8.8 million his department saved last year and to put the rest into reserves.
"We've set many expectations for performance on our staff," Littlejohn told lawmakers. "One of them does have to do with permit processing. It's very important . that folks get an answer to the question of whether they're entitled to receive a permit, quicker, whether that answer is yes or no."
Pafford said state law already requires permits to be approved or denied no longer than 60 days after the DEP has the information it needs from an applicant.
"I wonder if there is a better way to apply a bonus, not connected to the speed in which an application is either approved or denied," he said.
But Sen. Alan Hays, an Umatilla Republican, noted that these first bonuses could not have influenced permits already processed. In other words, DEP workers didn't know they would get them, so they weren't rushing permits through, knowing they'd get extra pay.
"There was no bonus incentive in the minds of these employees as they were improving the application process and review of permits," he said.
Employees eligible for bonuses work on developing restoration plans for impaired waters, issuing permits or ensuring compliance with permits, Littlejohn said.
"There is no reduction within DEP of our high environmental standards," he later told reporters. "Most people want to follow regulations; they just need help understanding how to comply with them. ... If we can help them understand what's expected, the outcome is faster."