Governors offer new model of a green GOP

Unlike Bush, some GOP governors are winning praise for efforts to protect the environment.

Standing before the rumpled blue curtain of the Massachusetts Statehouse press room, Gov. Jane Swift had just delivered an announcement that, within hours, would be widely hailed as a pioneering step in the fight against air pollution.

Her state would become the first in America to regulate the amount of carbon dioxide pouring from its oldest and dirtiest power plants.

Then came a question as awkward as it was revealing: What did she think of the fact that President Bush - a fellow Republican - had recently broken a campaign promise and decided to do the opposite, not backing such emissions limits nationwide.

"He and I, in this case, came to a different conclusion."

It's a comment that hints at an emerging fact: So far, Mr. Bush has been decidedly less green than some of the most influential governors of his own party.

From George Pataki in New York to the president's own brother, Jeb, in Florida, several Republican governors have passed sweeping new environmental laws and bought huge swaths of land to stop sprawl and protect endangered habitat. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge was even named his state's Conservationist of the Year by the Audubon Society last week.

Most activists are eager to point out that these more-conservationist conservatives aren't about to be canonized alongside Teddy Roosevelt as lights of the environmental cause. Yet they have managed to carve out a place for themselves as capable stewards and have laid the path for a more moderate Republican stance.

For the most part, the governors are loath to criticize Bush's first steps. But there are signs Bush might be easing his positions somewhat. Last week, he endorsed several environmental regulations put forward by the Clinton administration. Still, few expect him to turn into a conservationist. He is, after all, a former oil man and Texas governor - and where you come from goes a long way in determining your environmental outlook.

"There are substantial regional differences," says Sam Schuchat of the Federation of State Conservation Voter Leagues. "In New England and the Midwest, there are a fair number of pro-conservation Republicans. As you head west and south, the party becomes more conservative on the environment."

Examples are manifold. From Oklahoma to Idaho, the entire Interior West is run by Republican governors, and an informal poll of local members of the League of Conservation Voters about their governors' environmental policies yields words like "awful" and "Neanderthal." In the South, environmentalists talk of their governors in tortured tones. One report card on clean air graded eight Southern governors on four issues: Of the 32 total grades, only six were passing.

Farther north, however, the sentiment changes. Without question, there's still plenty of criticism. Environmentalists allege that Republican governors are too soft on businesses, and therefore hesitant to pass stringent pollution regulations. But Governor Swift's emissions rules are a step in the right direction, they say, and an indication that many Republican governors are seeking greener hues.

"Republican governors have been very much at the forefront of certain kinds of environmental issues," says Larry Morandi of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

Governor Pataki of New York, for example, is often held up as one of the most environmentally minded governors in the country. When Bush decided to forgo the carbon-dioxide regulations, Pataki commented, "We should be looking at ways to reduce CO2. I think it would be a positive thing for the country."

This year, Pataki has proposed a budget that earmarks $1.3 billion for the environment - the largest sum in state history. Moreover, he can tick off a long list of accomplishments that includes banning MTBE, a toxic gasoline additive that seeped into local wells, and persuading voters to pass an environmental bond to fund cleanups and land acquisitions.

"He's done some really good things in the area of conservation, and he's been a good ally at helping issues related to parks and open spaces," says Jeff Jones of Environmental Advocates in Albany, N.Y.

Setting aside land for open space and growth control, in fact, has been perhaps the greatest green success of Republican governors in recent years. Backed by years of state surpluses, they've gone on a buying binge to build an environmental legacy:

* In an effort to restore the Everglades, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush pushed for the state to spend $200 million a year for 10 years to purchase crucial habitat and drainage lands. The initiative was signed into law, but the state Senate is now trying to pare that figure to $100 million.

* Illinois Gov. George Ryan has begun a program called Conservation 2000, which allocates $40 million a year for four years for land purchases.

* In Pennsylvania, Growing Greener promises $650 million over the next five years to preserve open space, clean up mines, and protect farmland. Governor Ridge called the initiative his top legislative priority last year, and he won the conservation award for his efforts - the first governor to win it in its 17-year history.

* Ohio voters in November approved Gov. Bob Taft's two proposed $200 million bonds to buy up green space and clean up abandoned industrial sites, something environmentalists see as a positive first step. "Governor Taft has the potential to be a great friend to Ohio's land, air, and water," says Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council in Columbus.

While governing a state is vastly different from governing the nation, these environmental ideals could provide a model for Bush, some observers say. In several recent polls, Bush has scored lowest on issues of the environment.

It reminds Mr. Jones of Environmental Advocates of Pataki's first days in office. "It was a business-friendly approach to government that led to a lot of hostility in the environmental community," he says. Then Pataki reshuffled his administrators and pushed for his bond initiative, and everything changed.

"His approval ratings went above 50 percent, and they've stayed there ever since."

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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