With the stroke of his pen on a piece of insurance reform legislation, Florida governor Rick Scott will soon have the opportunity to begin writing another chapter to a rich and under-appreciated history of small-government environmentalism. The legislation he'll almost certainly sign in the next few weeks -- the "coastal preservation" title of a property insurance reform bill -- will protect millions of undeveloped acres in the State of Florida, shield taxpayers from giant potential liabilities, defend private property, and won't cost a penny of tax money. While it's not the first law or regulation of its type -- several similar measures exist in federal law -- it's an approach that deserves a lot more attention and consideration from conservatives and liberals alike.
The bill that Florida lawmakers just sent to Scott's desk contains language that ends state-subsidized insurance for people who build in high-risk coastal areas seaward of an "Coastal Construction Control Line." Without the subsidies that the state currently provides for property insurance in storm-prone areas, developers and homeowners wanting to build along the coasts will probably have to either self-insure or buy much more expensive "excess and surplus lines" insurance. This will slow the pace of new coastal development overall and assure that projects built right near storm-prone coasts are both safe (private insurers will insist on it) and economically beneficial (they'll need to be for lenders to back them.) The results will protect millions of acres of wetlands from subsidized development and, because these coastal areas serve as key wildlife habitat, recreation areas, and buffers against storm surge, benefit people who live inland too. As sea levels rise as a result of climate change, furthermore, the bill will assure that Florida will have to do less to adjust. And, since Florida will no longer assume liabilities for the insurance, the bill also protects taxpayers. In short, it's something that just about every group concerned (except developers) should love.
The approach that the bill takes isn't exactly new. Since the early 1980s, environmentalists and members of Congress from both parties have worked hard to look for ways that withdrawing subsidies and shrinking government could protect the environment. The most visible legacy of this movement is probably the Coastal Barrier Resources Act which withdraws federal subsidies from most barrier islands and barrier beaches and has saved over $1 billion while preserving millions of acres of wild lands. Another set of policies -- conservation compliance -- forbids farmers from using federal subsidies to drain wetlands and requires them to avoid soil erosion when they use these same subsidies to farm on "highly erodible land." Finally, designations of National Forest Wilderness Areas -- a favorite tool of President Ronald Reagan -- preserves land for recreational and conservation use in truly rugged conditions without building massive tourist facilities or spending millions of tax dollars.
This approach of shrinking government to protect the environment, of course, can't work for everything. Although the current manner of administering them could use some revision, there's little doubt that there need to be laws that protect the commons -- air and water -- from industrial pollution. While pure, pristine wilderness is certainly important, furthermore, it's perfectly legitimate to spend tax money to make areas of great historical and natural significance more accessible to the public. But being green does not -- and should not -- mean supporting ever-bigger government. The Florida legislature, in its own way, has just proven it.