Bill putting strict limits on Soil and Water Conservation District boards passes final Senate panel
Travis Hutson moves big money into the Conservative Choice. Image via Colin Hackley.

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The bill limits membership to farmers or employees of farms that earn more than $500K annually.

The idea seemed so ludicrous to GOP Sen. Jeff Brandes that he was exasperated as he pleaded with his Senate Committee on Appropriation colleagues to vote down SB 1078.

“I mean, we’re not serious with this bill. I can’t believe that,” he said. “Let’s not do this. This is not a good bill. This isn’t ready for primetime. This isn’t ready for spring training. I’m not sure this thing’s even ready for t-ball.”

But the bill, put forth by fellow Republican Sen. Travis Hutson, cleared its final Senate committee stop. Hutson’s bill puts strict limitations on membership eligibility for Florida’s Soil and Water Conservation District boards. The bill would require candidates for the volunteer public office to be agriculture producers working or retired after at least 15 years of work or employed by an agriculture producer.

An amendment added Monday further limits membership to producers who make at least $500,000 in a year. 

Buck Carpenter is an agriculture producer from Madison County. He told senators all of his income comes from agricultural exports. But under the bill, even he wouldn’t be eligible to serve on the board and wants more inclusivity.

“I am nowhere close to half-a-million in revenue,” he said. “Farmers, we buy everything at retail, sell everything wholesale and pay for freight both ways. So we have absolutely nothing to gain.”

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) said it worked with Hutson to craft the bill into something digestible, but still found it too restrictive.

FDACS Agricultural Water Policy Director Chris Pettit said those boards work in partnership with FDACS to not just implement best practices and policies from the department, but to also implement education and outreach components and engage in agricultural projects that require engineering. He said it would be “wholly appropriate” for experts in fields like environmental science, education and engineering that might not be a farmer or employed by one to serve on a board.

“The ability to have specific expertise in engineering, science, education and outreach are vital,” Pettit said. “Generalists can go as far as they can go. I would call myself a generalist in many areas. There’s just benefits to having the ability to draw from a broad pool of experts.”

Hutson expressed his offense with some mocking his bill and suggesting that agricultural experts aren’t also experts at engineering, education and environmental science.

“Farmers are not stupid. They can understand this. They can resolve these issues. They’ve got staff there,” he said. “So farmers aren’t stupid and I don’t think people should start minimizing the farming community or people that work for farmers.”

Hutson’s bill almost called for the abolition of the district boards. He said he was told the boards in his area didn’t have enough representation from the agricultural community. But when he received pushback from other boards, he changed the bill to amend board membership. But board members said they don’t want the bill either.

Nicole Crosby is chair of the board in St. Johns County, part of Hutson’s district. She said a public records request to find out about alleged complaints yielded no results. She challenged the constitutionality of the bill’s restrictions and said it could be a slippery slope.

“We have a 14th Amendment that says you can’t put unreasonable restrictions on a candidate for public office. Residency, age, mental competency, those are reasonable restrictions. But restrictions that rule out perhaps 95% of Floridians from running for an office are unreasonable and unconstitutional. What’s next, major restrictions on who can run for House or Senate?”

The next step for SB 1078 is a vote on the Senate floor and possible adoption.

Daniel Figueroa IV

Bronx, NY —> St. Pete, Fla. Just your friendly, neighborhood journo junkie with a penchant for motorcycles and Star Wars. Daniel has spent the last decade covering Tampa Bay and Florida for the Ledger of Lakeland, Tampa Bay Times, and WMNF. You can reach Daniel Figueroa IV at [email protected]


4 comments

  • tom palmer

    February 28, 2022 at 7:29 pm

    What this is really all about is making sure no Democrats get elected .Hutson is a party hack.
    .

  • Pam Fentress

    March 1, 2022 at 9:43 am

    I don’t think that’s true Tom (ie bill is all about limiting Democrats on SWCDs). I do however think abolishing SWCDs isn’t a good idea. I also think the $500,000 requirement is ridiculous. And to think that all ag operations have “staff” shows lack of understanding for small generational farming.

    Having said all the above, I will say that there are some SWCDs that are not on point. There are some that use their swcd as a political stepping stone.

    I’m on a local swcd and we are very active and helpful to agricultural producers and BMP compliance. We also have MIL (Mobile Irrigation Lab) on staff. They helped save hundreds of millions of gallons of water through irrigation efficiency measures. Cost share programs have funded nutrient removal programs.

    One thing I know for sure, we need to keep politics out of SWCDs.

    Pam

  • Andrew Justus Fritz

    March 2, 2022 at 11:29 am

    I’m not sure if there is anything that is right with this bill. But what is right is that SWCD’s work to the benefit of producers. It is a time-honored and respected agency that builds trust with the public through non-regulatory assistance. SWCD’s, in essence, were born out of the Dust Bowl to assist producers with protecting soil health and it was created unanimously by the U.S. House and Senate. Nearly every county in the country has a SWCD (or RCD/NRCD). An agency that, by-and-large, has earned the trust of its constituents no matter the ideologies of the people it serves, is an agency that is worth respecting and holding up as an example of something that works well-enough (not perfectly) to hang our hats on with pride.

    • Pam Fentress

      March 2, 2022 at 12:52 pm

      New amendment added to Senate bill today. It will be heard tomorrow. This will be the 8th amendment. This is getting way past ridiculous.

Comments are closed.


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