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PolitiFact Florida On Privatization Of Florida's Beaches; Bill Nelson's Voting Record

Off limits?
Off limits?

Will a bill recently signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott result in making more of Florida's beaches off-limits? And does U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson really have an anemic record of getting bills passed in Congress, as his opponents allege? WUSF's Steve Newborn gets the lowdown on those claims with Allison Graves of PolitiFact Florida.

Click here to listen to the extended version of the conversation between WUSF's Steve Newborn and Allison Graves of PolitiFact Florida

A new law was just signed by Gov. Rick Scott that says starting in July,  any city or county that wants to enact an ordinance to make private beaches public will have to go through the courts.

So a political advocacy group called For Our Future Florida is trying to splash a little cold water on that. 

"On #EarthDay, we want to thank @SenBillNelson who has always fought for and defended the health of Florida’s coastlines and environment, while @FLGovScott just signed a bill that could make most of Florida’s beaches private," For Our Future Florida tweeted April 22.

Here's PolitiFact Florida's takeon that claim:

Please pause before canceling your summer vacation. This claim needs a fact-check.

In reality, more than half of Florida beaches are already privately owned. The new law, opposed by many environmental groups, affects the procedure for local governments that want to make private beaches public.

Starting July 1, any city or county that wants to enact an ordinance to make private beaches public will have to go through the courts.

The sound bite from For Our Future Florida rests on the notion that private beach owners will use the law to limit public access. But we don’t know how those owners will react.

The law Scott signed isn’t going to turn beaches that are public now over to private ownership.

What it will do is make it harder to guarantee public access on beaches that were already privately owned.

Before the new law, local governments could adopt ordinances guaranteeing the public’s access to privately owned beach property. Those ordinances stemmed from a legal principle known as "customary use."

"Customary use" refers to the public’s historic access to the dry sand portion of the beach that may belong to a private property owner.

For example, the owners of an oceanfront estate in South Beach may decide they do not like that beachgoers are setting up camp on the shoreside portion of their property. They install a fence and "no trespassing" signs to tell the public to stay away.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled that if a private property owner tries to do this, then the local government could enact an ordinance guaranteeing the public’s use of that land under "customary use," following their usual notice and hearing process. If landowners wanted to challenge the ordinance, they would have to sue the local government.

Lawmakers drafted HB 631 to put more of the onus on the government and to establish a uniform process that includes all the stakeholders.

Starting July 1, local governments that seek to adopt an ordinance that is premised on customary use rights must first notify all the owners of land that might be implicated, and then file a proceeding in court.

The court will decide the question of whether the public has customary use rights in that specific area.

The law Scott signed would not result in turning more public beaches into private ones. In reality, when the law takes effect, it will make it harder for local governments to guarantee public access to beaches that are already private by throwing in a new judicial obstacle.

It’s unclear at this point how the law will change private beach access, because that depends on the actions of local governments and private beach owners.

We rate this claim Mostly False.

Next up, Florida Republicans unveiled a website that portrays U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson,, as a do-nothing career politician.

"Out of 860 bills he’s introduced in Congress, only 10 have passed," said the website No More Nelson, sponsored by the Republican Party of Florida.

That just happened to coincided with Gov. Scott’s announcement that he would take on Nelson in November.

Here's PolitiFact Florida's ruling:

Our review found that Nelson has not sponsored many bills that became law. But the simple pass-fail ratio omits other ways in which members of Congress can influence legislation, and there are significant problems with the GOP’s choice of words and numbers. 

It is not surprising that these figures, easily extracted from Congress.gov, found their way into a soundbite. But they are a trap. It is difficult to extract quantitative takeaways from the qualitative work of legislating.

Nelson’s Congress.gov profile includes links to about 860 measures that Nelson sponsored. Narrowed to those that became law, there are 10 results.

But the Republicans’ comparison is flawed.

While they referred to the 860 count as "bills," less than half were bills. The remainder were amendments or resolutions, including a designation of National Tourism Week (which passed) and a more meaty action to help Medicare users pay for prescription drugs (which never reached a vote). Narrowing the data to only sponsored bills shows about 360 results.

The larger GOP tally also includes dozens of duplicates for when Nelson introduced the same or similar bill more than once. For example, Nelson introduced the Truth in Caller ID Act three times in 2006, 2007 and 2009 before it became law in 2010.

The Republicans should have been more precise in the second half of the claim, too: The party said only 10 bills from Nelson "have passed."

Those were actually the 10 measures that made it into law.

There’s a broader category of legislation that "passed" one chamber even if it didn’t become law. By that count, Nelson had 77 measures that passed the Senate and seven that passed the House.

The Republicans omit ways in which Nelson — or any other member — can exert influence on legislation, or when a similar idea is that he didn’t sponsor is signed by the president.

We see how any politician’s legislative scorecard invites a mathematical analysis. But this takeaway of Nelson’s time is woefully flawed. We rate this claim Mostly False.

Copyright 2020 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7.

Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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