Alan Farago: How Big Sugar's shadow fell across a simple Miami-Dade resolution

For students of Big Sugar and its control of Florida, sub-section county government, Tuesday’s discussion and vote on a resolution proposed by Miami-Dade County Commissioners Daniella Levine Cava and Rebeca Sosa was a master class. The resolution, aimed at lawmakers now in special session, from the outset seemed innocuous but doomed. Instead, it passed. Here, in part, is what it said:

“RESOLUTION URGING THE FLORIDA LEGISLATURE TO SET ASIDE $500 MILLION IN FUNDING FROM AMENDMENT 1, OR OTHER AVAILABLE SOURCE, TO ACQUIRE LAND SOUTH OF LAKE OKEECHOBEE FOR THE PURPOSE OF STORING AND TREATING WATER FROM THE LAKE AND SENDING IT SOUTH TO THE GREATER EVERGLADES ECOSYSTEM.”

The Miami Herald reported that conservationists wanted to “persuade lawmakers to buy U.S. Sugar land before a deal expired. Backers of Amendment 1, overwhelmingly supported in November, say the state needs to buy land for water storage south of Lake Okeechobee and also order the South Florida Water Management District to lay out a plan for designing and building a reservoir they say is part of the original restoration plans.”

In the regular session, Big Sugar went to the mat deploying its proxies; Gov. Rick Scott, GOP legislative leaders and the governor’s appointees on the South Florida Water Management District governing board. What does Big Sugar want?

Its first objective is to kill the 2008 deal set in motion by then-Gov. Charlie Crist between the state and U.S. Sugar Corp. to sell to the public more than 133,000 acres of sugar cane fields in the Everglades Agricultural Area. Bit by bit, Big Sugar whittled the deal down to a nub.

Why was this 2008 deal so important to the Everglades and Floridians? Granted, the U.S. Sugar property was not all in one parcel to solve the problem of “connecting” Lake Okeechobee to the remnant Everglades by creating additional and badly needed storage treatment marshes.

On the other hand, taking that much land out of sugar cane production – at a projected cost of more than $1.2 billion – would lay the groundwork for the next step in the campaign to save the Everglades: putting pressure on the land owners of the more centrally located lands within the Everglades Agricultural Area: i.e., the Fanjul billionaires and King Ranch.

The entire politics of Florida is a synchronized machine to deliver maximum profits to Big Agriculture. Most Floridians never see the components of the machinery, because the engineering and fine-tuning all takes place in Tallahassee and Washington D.C., where great gobs of money passes between the regulated and regulators: in this case, our elected representatives.

Big Sugar isn’t the only actor. Citrus, cattle and dairy operations north of Lake Okeechobee also feature prominently. What distinguishes Big Sugar is that growing its crops requires constant surveillance and monitoring of fresh water resources to irrigate its fields and to dry them down at the appropriate cycles of the crop season. It’s the Goldilocks principle of porridge-making at work: “Never too hot, never too cold.”

Sugar is less resilient to stress than cattle. So Big Sugar has managed to control the levers and the taxing authority and operations of the South Florida Water Management District.

Nevertheless Big Ag and Big Sugar’s interests in control to maximize profits are inseparable. Their aim: maximize profits by “externalizing” costs. The foremost of those costs related to fertilizer pollution in the case of sugar and excrement in the case of cattle. (The less obvious but even more damaging costs are to public health.) It has always been Big Ag’s and Big Sugar’s objective to have taxpayers front the costs of its pollution to the greatest extent possible, so the Big Sugar cartel can make the most money possible. It’s American Exceptionalism, defined.

In 2014, conservationists – after decades of fighting the Legislature to secure funding for acquisition of environmentally sensitive lands – went to the polls to pass a constitutional amendment allocating a third of the documentary stamp tax used in all real estate transactions for the express purpose of buying land. In doing so, they took away one of Big Sugar’s most potent barriers: “You don’t have the money to buy our lands.” Well, now if the Legislature follows the law, we actually do have the money.

So that’s what the struggle has been in the Legislature. Although healthcare gets the headlines, the fate of poor people is not what propels Republican legislators out of bed in the morning. What does is when their most powerful campaign contributors, Big Sugar, have something they want them to do.

One wouldn’t imagine that a simple county resolution in support of allocating $500 million from Amendment 1 would animate Big Sugar to action. But the county is Florida’s most populous and politically influential, Miami-Dade. Why the resolution is important to Miami-Dade was made clear by one of the measures co-sponsors, Daniella Levine Cava. (Rebeca Sosa, the former chair of the commission, was the other co-sponsor.) It has to do with drinking water for nearly 8 million South Floridians. Providing more water storage and cleansing marshes in the Everglades Agricultural Area is an insurance policy on the future availability of sufficient clean and affordable drinking water for urban residents. It is not just about the Everglades. “It’s the drinking water, stupid.”

So what happened Tuesday?

Gaston Cantens, a former legislator from Miami-Dade who earned his street cred pushing through 2003 changes to Everglades water law benefiting Big Sugar (resulting in nearly a decade of delay and federal litigation by Friends of the Everglades and the Miccosukee Tribe in which the state ultimately lost) is now the chief government operative for the Fanjuls. He and lobbyists on Big Sugar’s payroll are everywhere in Tallahassee. They don’t come down to Miami-Dade often because there’s nothing much for them to do unless it involves meddling they deem in their interests, which was the case Tuesday.

Their proxies on the county commission were led by Pepe Diaz and Juan Zapata. Pepe Diaz’s “flood concerns” dovetails exactly with Big Sugar’s objectives. Listening to Diaz on the Everglades is like attending a two-hour piano concert in which only two notes are ever played: “me” and “flood concerns,” over and over and over again. Juan Zapata is a relative newbie to Big Sugar’s fold.

At any rate, through the course of the 40 minute debate on the resolution, both Diaz and Zapata read from carefully rehearsed scripts, written by Big Sugar lobbyists. In addition to Diaz’s flood concerns, there was repeated mention of Big Sugar’s veiled threat: that if the county commission approved a resolution to use Amendment 1 moneys to buy Big Sugar lands like those being advocated by conservationists, there would be retribution against Miami-Dade County’s “legislative priorities” in Tallahassee. This threat was voiced several times in several styles. That was the shadow descending.

I will give Pepe Diaz credit for his dancing steps on one of Big Sugar’s main worries: water quality. You see, Everglades restoration depends on getting the water from the cesspit of Lake Okeechobee very clean. If it is not clean to federal standards for the Everglades, the River of Grass is doomed. Big Sugar won’t say so, but the game it is playing is “running out the clock,” just like the Miami Heat when they can protect their lead.

Juan Zapata made an argument I’d never heard before, and it gets high marks for creativity. After Daniella Levine Cava emphasized that the future president of the Florida Senate, likely to be Joe Negron, supports the allocation of $500 million for land acquisition (he hasn’t said where) to use lands to clean up frightful water pollution in Martin and Palm Beach counties, Zapata asked his commissioners to consider how business really gets done in Tallahassee: “As soon as the Senate signals it wants something, the House immediately puts a stop to it.” What an interesting analysis why a single-party state government (Democrats are powerless, thanks to so called fair redistricting) should be red-flagged by voters.

Left unsaid by Zapata: how the gridlock in Tallahassee is exactly the result of Big Ag’s vital interest in paralysis of government’s regulatory functions.

Finally, Diaz and Zapata urged their colleagues on the dais to water-down the resolution sponsored by Levine Cava and Sosa. There was much discussion how the measure, as worded, could waste the time of lobbyists and run counter to the real “priorities” established early in the year by the county commission. Let’s take out a few words here and there, Zapata and Diaz both said. Credit to Levine Cava: she carefully led the county attorney to explain that a resolution “urging” the legislature to act wouldn’t change anything in the order of county priorities.

In the end, the measure passed 7 – 5. Among the notables voting against the measure, Chairman Jean Monestine.

So now, Florida’s biggest county is on record supporting the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott acting on Sen. Negron’s request to allocate $500 million to purchase of environmentally sensitive lands – creating the slimmest glimmer of hope that the state will exercise its option to buy some U.S. Sugar land before next October, when the chance will disappear forever.

So Big Sugar’s shadow descended on the Miami-Dade County Commission Tuesday without taking anyone’s first born son. And for that, in the immortal words of Tosh.O, we are grateful.

Alan Farago writes the daily blog, Eye On Miami, under the pen name, Gimleteye. He is president of Friends of the Everglades, a grass roots conservation organization based in Miami, FL. A long-time writer and advocate for Florida’s environment, his work is archived at alanfarago.wordpress.com Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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