Diane Roberts: Florida Legislature in the sticky embrace of Big Shug


OCCUPIED TALLAHASSEE–You think you live in a representative democracy. You don’t. You live on a sugar plantation. You call it “Florida.”

And while you may reside far from the muck farms and wouldn’t know a cane field from a pawpaw patch, it doesn’t matter. Your state government works for Big Sugar.

In 2012 and 2014, US Sugar and its subsidiaries gave more than $8 million to candidates for state office or their political action committees. Here’s what they get for their money:

The House of Representatives just passed HB 7003, a big-ass water bill, by a big-ass margin: 107-8. Sponsor Matt Caldwell waxed pious on how the bill “modernizes existing water policies and provides scientifically sound, responsible solutions to protect the health of our waterways and develop greater, reliable access to clean water for Floridians.”

Translated from the original Republican, that means Big Sugar will no longer have to apply for permits from the South Florida Water Management District governing how much manure, fertilizer and other phosphorous-laced runoff they can spew into Lake Okeechobee and other lakes, rivers and streams. Under the House’s new dispensation, clean water is strictly voluntary. All Big Sugar, Big Ag and Big Developer have to do is claim they’re adopting “Best Management Practices” and carry on polluting.

What’s a “Best Management Practice,” you ask? Why, it’s whatever Big Shug, Big Ag and Big Developer say it is. A fictional construct. A faith-based system: They say the water’s fine, the state believes it, and that settles it.

Even better, Big Ag and Big Shug get paid to “plan” to implement their voluntary BMPs: the Department of Agriculture wants at least $25 million of your money to subsidize rich polluters who shouldn’t be polluting in the first place.

This bill will improve water quality the same way an exploding sewer improves the scent of springtime.

It’s not as if the waters of Florida are currently in great shape: an unlovely cocktail of stinking toxic algae smothers the St Johns, the St. Lucie, the Caloosahatchee, the Santa Fe and other rivers. Our springs are cloudy; our beaches contaminated; our Everglades, Florida’s most important stormwater runoff system, is contaminated with nutrients: invasive species run amok while native flora and fauna die. Last November, more than 75 percent of Floridians voted for Amendment 1, demanding the state preserve our land and clean up our waters.

But to the Florida Legislature, the wishes of the voters, even expressed in a constitutional amendment, are just a suggestion. In 1996, Floridians placed in the constitution a demand that polluters pay to repair their damage. The Legislature made sure it didn’t hurt Big Shug: their share was a derisory $25 per acre every year.

Chump change to US Sugar; a pittance the Fanjuls of Florida Crystals could easily dig out of their silk sofa cushions.

Almost 20 years later, it’s still an inflation-denying $25 per acre per year. Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Turbinado, and the wholly-owned agricultural subsidiaries who serve in the Florida House, made sure in 2013 that the bargain price extends until 2026 – even though it only generates about $7 million per annum and the actual cost of fixing the Everglades comes in at four times that.

Never mind: Florida taxpayers will eat the balance.

You’re welcome.

Rep. Caldwell has been nice to Big Shug and Big Shug has been nice to him, contributing thousands to his campaigns. Along with former House Speaker Will Weatherford, future House Speaker Richard Corcoran, and House Appropriations Chair Seth McKeel, Rep. Caldwell also got at least one swish hunting trip to US Sugar’s 30,000 acre lease at King Ranch, that place in Texas where a day’s cervidicide can run you $4,000 – not including antler-mounting.

Funny coincidence: King Ranch cultivates thousands of acres of sugar cane in Florida.

Remember back in 2010 when Rick Scott said US Sugar “owned” rival Bill McCollum? Oh, the follies of political youth! Guess who US Sugar owns now? The company gave Scott more than half a million for his re-election in 2014, and these days he’s pretty sweet to them. Scott even got his own King Ranch trip.

Still, nobody has been a more faithful forelock-tugging vassal than current House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Molasses–unless it’s Ag Commissioner Adam Putnam. Crisafulli wants to be Ag Commissioner; Putnam wants to be governor. Both need Big Shug’s approval.

Crisafulli muscled the bad water bill through the House in his first week as speaker, demonstrating his loyalty to the Lords of Saccharum. For his next trick, he’ll insist that money generated by passage of Amendment 1 be used to fix leaky pipes in municipal sewer systems and wastewater projects.

Sure, you voted for Amendment 1 so that the state would buy land–critical habitat, wetlands, springsheds, maybe that 47,000 acres of US Sugar property critical to restoring vital water flow in the Everglades. But wouldn’t you rather help Big Shug, the friendly folks who bring you Type 2 Diabetes?

And why are you worrying your little heads over this anyway? As Rep. Caldwell reminds everyone, “At the end of the day, it’s on DEP to make sure the water quality standards are being met.”

Now that’s reassuring! The very Department of Environmental Protection which does not allow its employees to utter the words “climate change,” the agency which tried to redefine dry uplands as wetlands, and doesn’t think Florida needs to measure the amount of sewage, fertilizer and other delights in its water because, you know, the fish aren’t dead yet, will take care of us.

Let’s all go eat a cupcake.

Diane Roberts teaches at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Tribal, her new book on college football, comes out in October. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Diane Roberts

Diane Roberts teaches at Florida State University. Her latest book, “Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America,” will be out in paperback in the fall.


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