Taking the focus off Sarah Palin: Congress votes on offshore oil drilling and Hillsborough County landscaped medians stay safe

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Less than two months away from the election of our next president, with all that's on the line with our national security and failing economy, and this is what we spent two news cycles obsessing over: Did Barack Obama call Sarah Palin a pig?

At the risk of resurrecting a non-story, it's worth citing the example as just the latest in a string of trivial pursuits by the mainstream media and both campaigns in the 2008 presidential race. Based on the amount of coverage given to campaign stories, here is what we know so far in order to make our informed democratic (small d) decision:

• Sarah Palin's daughter, Bristol, is an unwed pregnant teen.

• Palin makes great jokes about lipstick and pit bulls and hockey moms.

• Obama makes lousy jokes about lipstick and pigs.

• John McCain lied about Obama's education record, saying that it was dismal and consisted solely of wanting to teach kindergarteners about sex.

• Obama surrogate Hillary Clinton lied about McCain being against women earning equal pay for equal jobs.

• Palin didn't try to ban about 100 books from the Wasilla Public Library.

• Palin didn't "stop" the Bridge to Nowhere and neither wildly loves nor viciously hates earmarks.

The bottom line is that not a single one of those "issues" will lower the cost of energy, restore American prestige abroad, win the peace in Iraq and the Middle East, or get the U.S. economy going again. They are distractions. They are trifles and piffle.

So let's turn our attention away from pigs and pit bulls and toward something that might actually matter: offshore oil drilling. Congress this week is expected (at least at press time for us) to vote on a new Democratic energy proposal that would allow more offshore drilling. Democratic leaders caved on their longstanding ban against expanded drilling on the outer continental shelf along the Eastern, Pacific and Gulf coasts. Under the proposal, states would have to give their OK first and Florida is exempt.

So it's not our problem, right?

Not quite.

You see, while there are good parts of the proposed bill — including the repeal of some tax breaks for the biggest oil companies and provisions that would raise more money to create renewable energy solutions —it still, at heart, delivers what Big Oil wants: more domestic oil drilling. Possibly off California, North Carolina and New England beaches.

Whether or not that is a good idea is a very complicated debate. What is not complicated, however, is the amount of clout that Big Oil has in Washington. Just look at a report that came out last week from the investigative arm of the Department of the Interior, which documented a veritable frat-house coke orgy going on among some of its staff involved in collected oil royalties and energy companies. It was enough to prompt Florida Sen. Bill Nelson to say, "This is why we must not allow Big Oil's agenda to be jammed through Congress."

Also uncomplicated is the fact that the bill itself is not entirely the product of good public debate, but of Democratic congressional leaders' apparent desire to take some pressure off Obama's unpopular anti-drilling stance, as well as their own inaction on arriving at a viable energy policy.

And that is not trivial, not one bit.

First appearances aren't deceiving: It may seem a trivial thing, but landscaping on our highways is a big deal. Folks who visit here and CEOs who consider moving jobs here all get their first impression of our area from a highway median or intersection. If it is planted with palm trees and crape myrtles and shrubs, we look a whole lot better than if it is bare and stark. (Yes, in this case, you can put lipstick on a pig.)

That's why some of the people who do our transportation planning were freaking out earlier this year when it became clear that some of our highway beautification efforts were going to take a hit because of the Amendment 1 local government budget cuts. We're not just talking about new plants not going into the ground; in six places around greater Tampa, government officials were actually talking about ripping the existing landscaping out of the ground because Hillsborough County could no longer afford to maintain it.

You see, when somebody wants to landscape a state highway such as U.S. 41/Nebraska Avenue in Lutz and Ruskin, State Road 60/Brandon Boulevard or U.S. 301 around Riverview, the state says that is cool — as long as some other government pays for the landscape maintenance. The state can afford only to mow grass; other fancier plantings are too expensive for it to trim.

So until Amendment 1, Hillsborough County said it would pick up the tab. But no more. And its agreements with the state required that if it stopped maintaining the landscaping, the county would have to pull up the greenery and re-plant with sod.

Crazy, huh? The staff director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization in Tampa thought so. Ray Chiaramonte called the idea penny-wise and pound-foolish. "It's like having a beautiful, expensive house but never painting the outside of it," he said.

And already, one of those landscaped medians, in Ruskin, has been gutted and replanted as grass after local businesses there couldn't come up with the money to, in essence, adopt the highway. The Riverview landscaping has been saved by the chamber there, but two other landscaped areas, in Lutz and Brandon, were about to fall to the chain saw until they were rescued last week by a landscaping business that agreed to provide maintenance for free.

Diane Blase, vice president of customer development at Natural Designs landscaping in Lutz, said her company is happy to do the work.

"We're going to do it as long as we can and as long as we're able," she said. "We're hoping other commercial companies step up to the plate" to save other medians in danger of being un-planted.

Oh, and the crape myrtle plants that used to beautify the highway in Ruskin? They were removed by an inmate crew from the Hillsborough County jail and replanted to beautify the jail grounds instead of the entryways to Tampa.

Any chance a visiting CEO will get arrested and be impressed by the beautiful jailscaping?

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