Bert Harris, left, with Tom Gustafson in the House, 1986
Florida has lost the iconic lawmaker whose name is synonymous with private property rights and with the legislation that, for the last 27 years, has served as a model for other states addressing environmental and land use regulation.
Bert J. Harris, Jr. died Sunday at home with family, a hero in many legal circles and particularly in his Highlands County community — a citrus farmer and rancher still fighting till the end on behalf of Florida agriculture.
He was seven months shy of his 100th birthday when he died. Officials in Lake Placid and Sebring have already lowered flags to half staff on public land and buildings.
Bert HarrisA leading figure in Central Florida agriculture for decades, Harris made the promotion of agriculture his life’s avocation. In fact, the Highlands County Bert J. Harris Jr. Agricultural Center was named in his honor and after a career in the Legislature and 26 years as the extension agent for Highlands County, in 1999 he was inducted into the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame.
The Highlands News-Sun reports Harris was born in Warwick, Ga., not in Florida. His family moved to Florida when he was 4. Harris graduated high school. in Arcadia. He was a 1943 honors graduate of the University of Florida with a degree in agriculture.
Harris served as a corporal in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Pacific during World War II. After discharge in 1946, he married Elna James and they settled in Lake Placid. To see a short video about his family and background, click HERE.
From the moment he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1982 until he left office in 1996 and for another two decades after that, lifelong Democrat Harris worked to bring strong commonsense laws to average Floridians looking to catch a break from government.
Ken PruittFormer Senate president Ken Pruitt said Tuesday, “Bert J Harris’ legacy will live on for generations in Florida. The Bert J. Harris Jr. Private Property Rights Protection Act will forever be regarded as one of the most important pieces of legislation in modern times. Bert Harris leveled the playing field between the heavy hand of government and the average citizen who simply wants to own a piece of the American Dream. Bert Harris made that possible in Florida, Pruitt said. “He is every bit a Florida hero and icon.”
Trust Pruitt on this. He was there in a major way.
In 1992 Harris teamed with Ken Pruitt, a Republican and member of the minority party in the Florida House. They joined in an effort to address the over-regulation and ownership rights of privately owned property. After two unsuccessful pushes to pass their Private Property Rights Protection Act, the two caught the break they needed in the third year.
Prior to the 1995 legislative session, Gov. Lawton Chiles, who had run into a regulatory roadblock when he attempted to build a “cook shack” on his own private property, was ready to support the lawmakers’ efforts. With the governor’s push, CS/HB 863 – 1995) cleared both chambers with only a single dissenting vote. Pruitt honored his partner and friend, the senior bill sponsor and member of the majority party, by renaming the bill the Bert J. Harris Jr. Private Property Rights Protection Act before the floor vote. Chiles signed the Act on May 18, 1995.
On April 23, 2014, while making her closing remarks on HB 383, a private property rights bill that tweaked the Bert Harris original, then-state Rep. Katie Edwards delivered a tribute to Harris, not only regaling his rich biography but celebrating the wonder of the legislative accomplishment in 1995.
Katie Edwards-Walpole’s “Bert Harris” tribute, 2015″This Act does more than allow for compensation,” said Edwards, “it affords property owners of all sizes to have justice when government imposes regulations that result in an inordinate burden.
“To quote from the Act, an inordinate burden means ‘… the property owner is left with existing or vested uses that are unreasonable … such that the property owner bears permanently a disproportionate share of a burden imposed for the good of the public which in fairness should be borne by the public at large.’
“In these times of term limits,” Edwards said, “it is imperative that we periodically remind ourselves of the importance of this Act, and a reminder of the decorum and bi-partisanship that led to its original passage.
“For those of us on the back rows, I’d like to remind you that this Act was passed by a Democrat-led House and Senate, and signed by a Democrat governor. For those of you on the front rows, I’d like to remind you that two of the Republican supporters became Senate president, and two became House Speaker.
“Responsibility to protect private property rights belongs to all of us, regardless of party or caucus,” she said.
Here’s how bi-partisan the Burt Harris Act was: It passed 111-0. Republican Dan Webster and Democrat Debbie Wassserman Schultz voted “yes.” So did Democrat Corrine Brown and Republican John Thrasher. And Republican Jim King and Democrat Sally Heyman. And Republican Bill Posey and Democrat Kendrick Meek. Democrat Lois Frankel and Republican Steve Wise. Edwards said all of that, making her point powerfully.
Bert Harris, meanwhile, was at home proudly watching The Florida Channel as Edwards delivered that speech.
During his long years in the Florida House, Harris also sponsored legislation to settle citrus canker cases, passed legislation to prevent the disparagement of perishable food products and worked to meet the Greenbelt Law, which taxes agricultural lands based on the current “use” value of the property versus its development value — which is typically higher.
“He will be sorely missed,” his friend Ray Royce, director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association, told the newspaper. “(Harris) was a good role model on how to put priorities in order and how to treat other people.”
Those who worked with Harris, Royce said, have gone on to become successful community advocates and leaders.
“He and I had many conversations in regard to the [citrus growers] association,” Royce said. “I took any thoughts that he shared with me to be very thoughtful, reasoned and something I should give the utmost credence to.”
Harris leaves his wife of 73 years, a son, a daughter and several others in his extended family.
Visitation will be at 10 a.m. Thursday with the funeral at 11 a.m. at an now-undecided location.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith