“Madam Chair, I had to check my watch to make sure it wasn’t April Fools.”
Those were GOP Sen. Jeff Brandes‘ opening words in the Appropriations Committee debate over a bill that disqualifies perhaps 95% of Floridians from candidacy for the small, unpaid position of Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD).
Not even a soil and water scientist qualifies to serve on the board under SB 1078, sponsored by my own state Senator, Travis Hutson. The bill effectively fired me from the job I was elected to by 73,840 people. Hutson cut my term in half, and it will end this year unless the Governor vetoes the bill.
This is the same Senator whose land development company spent $10,000 trying to stop me from winning the office. Other developers brought the war chest to $43,000 (for a position no one had previously spent more than $100 running for in St. Johns County), and I was outspent 14 to 1.
What drew the ire of four large developers and 15 PACs was that I had successfully fought to protect 100 acres of conservation land surrounded by the only National Estuarine Research Reserve on Florida’s east coast.
Henry Dean, GOP Commissioner in St. Johns County, wrote to me: “Thank you for all your efforts to stop incompatible development of 66 homes smack dab in the middle of our crown jewel of nature in northeast Florida.”
One year after I defeated Hutson’s candidate for SWCD, the Senator filed a bill to eliminate all SWCDs in Florida.
Had his candidate won, it seems unlikely he would have sponsored legislation to fire him.
During the committee proceedings, Hutson maligned all SWCDs as doing “nothing.” Now, why would Hutson’s company have spent $10,000 trying to put a candidate on a board that does nothing?
SB 1078 mandates that SWCD supervisors must be agricultural workers, exemplifying government overreach to the extreme. As Brandes pointed out, the only government jobs requiring an occupation to qualify are Attorneys General, judges … and Soil and Water Board members.
He observed that he, a Senator, would not qualify to run for the Soil and Water board.
Only reasonable restrictions are allowed under the 14th amendment. Hutson’s precedent-setting restriction is clearly unconstitutional and will likely be challenged in court on the taxpayer’s dime.
SB 1078 will cost our state dearly in conservation activities; dozens of projects were described to the legislators by SWCD supervisors, from saving millions of gallons of water to planting 20,000 longleaf pine seedlings. This bill will also reduce diversity on boards; in my neighboring Duval County, two of the people of color on Duval’s board will be disqualified.
I was floored when Hutson convinced his fellow legislators that Florida’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts deserted their “core mission” of farming — a verifiably false statement.
Farming is not the Commission’s core mission. The Senator never once read into the record Florida Statute 582.02’s first, actual “purpose of districts — (1) It is the policy of the Legislature to promote the appropriate and efficient use of soil and water resources, protect water quality, prevent floodwater and sediment damage, preserve wildlife, protect public lands, and protect and promote the health, safety and general welfare of the people of this state.” Nothing about farming in #1.
The statute later mentions “farm” along with forest, grazing lands, green spaces, recreational areas and natural areas — all of which are deemed “necessary” by state statute to be conserved. Not even the SWCD oath of office mentions farming: ” … I will, to the best of my ability, defend from waste the natural resources of the District, its soils and minerals, its forests, its water and wildlife …”
The farmer on our board, Chuck Owen, made a statement disagreeing with the bill: “We need scientists. We need other folks that have a resume background.”
Hutson revealed how out of touch he is with farmers when he said farmers have “staff” to assist them with matters that those experts contribute whom he disqualified from running for the office. He then segued into a “Farmers aren’t stupid” diatribe.
Rep. Keith Truenow similarly misled his colleagues when he introduced the House version of the bill, claiming SWCD’s activities to be “duplicative of Water Management Districts.”
In fact, I would be charged with impersonating a regulatory authority if I attempted to duplicate what the SJRWMD does.
When I tried to refute a false statement of Hutson’s during my public comment, Madam Chair would not allow it.
Perhaps we need a bill that requires fact-checking of bill introductions as well as documentation of alleged complaints that bills are based on (which did not show up in a FOIA request), to prevent more bills to fix things that aren’t broken.
There’s still hope that Gov. Ron DeSantis will see the many failings of SB 1078 and give it the veto it deserves.
Nicole Crosby serves as chair of the St. Johns Soil and Water Conservation District.