They spell out “Buy the Land” in live bodies along a Stuart beach. They gather in standing-room-only crowds at South Florida Water Management District meetings, traveling from Miami aboard Tri Rail and car pools from the Treasure Coast.
They travel to Tallahassee by the busload for rallies on the Capitol steps. Last week, singer Jimmy Buffett sang to 500 fellow Floridians at the latest Tally rally, where he went to “raise a little hell” and urge lawmakers to buy sugar industry-owned land south of Lake Okeechobee to store and clean water. South Floridians would drink some of it; the rest would flow south to the Everglades National Park.
On Thursday, more “buy the land” advocates packed another water district meeting.
So it’s clear that Floridians want the state to buy land south of the lake. Unfortunately, that’s not what the sugar industry wants.
Will lawmakers who took campaign cash from the sugar industry have the courage to cut the strings of their Big Sugar puppet masters to do what the people want?
It could happen. The “Save Our Rivers/Buy the Land” advocates aren’t giving up, and Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, offers a glimmer of hope.
Opponents are starting to appear desperate. As The Palm Beach Post’s Christine Stapleton reported earlier, anonymous money paid actors to demonstrate against the land buy at a Tea Party-organized event. No one admits bankrolling this charade, but a sugar industry spokeswoman defended it.
Never has everything been so perfectly aligned for the land buy. The people want it, and they have said so again and again. The Legislature has the money – at least $750 million from Amendment 1, which more than 75 percent of Florida voters approved last November to buy conservation lands.
But so far, every lawmaker who takes campaign cash from sugar sources is stalling, marching in lockstep with what Big Sugar wants.
If the land purchase is delayed until the state’s option to buy more than 46,000 acres south of the lake runs out in October, the sugar industry wins. It can continue to farm the land, consider development proposals – or simply let the price of the land increase.
Lawmakers, meantime, are pushing to hijack Amendment 1 money for purposes voters never intended, such as operating expenses for the Department of Environmental Protection. They won’t give enough money to Florida Forever, the state’s land-buying agency. They’re on board with the sugar industry-backed agenda of using the money for projects already in the works.
Dirty tricks reminiscent of recent elections are in play. In Martin County, some Economic Council members have ties to the sugar industry. The council sent residents a misleading email that seemed to support buying the land south of the lake. Instead, clicking on the provided links sent lawmakers the opposite message: Don’t buy the land. Spend money on existing projects.
Last week, however, Sen. Negron, who has taken large amounts of campaign money from the sugar industry, offered his Treasure Coast and north Palm Beach County constituents reasons to carry on. He told Stuart News reporter Isadora Rangel he will ask the Legislature to set aside $500 million in the state budget to buy lands under Amendment 1.
There still would be a battle over whether the money goes to buy sugar land south of the lake or to other restoration projects. But it’s better than the big bag of nothing Negron and other lawmakers so far have handed residents who support the land buy.
The folks at bullsugar.org, a nonprofit dedicated to stopping lake discharges to east and west coast rivers, said it all in a recent Facebook post. “Call Sen. Joe Negron at 850-487-5032…Leave a message something like this…There is no good reason to delay this land purchase. The people who voted for you need your leadership now.”
Joe, step up.
Sally Swartz is a former member of The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board. Find her blog posts and others at The Palm Beach Post Opinion Zone. Column courtesy of Context Florida.