EVERGLADES

On Everglades, Florida gives Big Sugar another break

 

ray.judah@icloud.com

The most deceptive and egregious action against taxpayers during the 2013 Florida legislative session was passage of HB 7065 and SB 768, which amended the 1994 Everglades Forever Act.

Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, sponsored HB 7065 under the guise of increasing the sugar industry’s funding commitment to Everglades restoration when, in fact, his proposed amendment was a smoke screen to ensure that the sugar industry would be able to limit or cap its long-term obligation to fund Everglades restoration.

The 1994 Everglades Forever Act, which was ostensibly written to restore the Florida Everglades, capped the sugar industry’s clean-up costs at $320 million and obligated the public taxpayers for the remainder of the $16 billion restoration project. The so-called privilege tax of $25 per acre that the sugar industry pays to continue its discharge of pollution runoff to the Everglades, as well as to the Caloosahatchee and coastal estuaries, amounts to about $11 million per year. A truly insignificant sum in contrast to the billions required from the public to restore the Florida Everglades.

The $25 per acre privilege tax was scheduled to be reduced to $10 per acre in 2017 but the Caldwell amendment extended the $25 per acre to 2026. To the casual observer it would appear that the legislative action would ensure that the sugar industry continued to help fund Everglades restoration.

In actuality, the legislation provided the sugar industry the comfort level or certainty that its long term-funding commitment towards Everglades restoration would be significantly limited in scope. Instead of defending the sugar industry and suggesting that the taxpayers contribute an even greater amount to Everglades restoration, Rep. Caldwell should have supported an amendment to the Everglades Forever Act that increased the $25 privilege tax.

This would have ensured that the sugar industry paid its fair share towards Everglades restoration as opposed to the sugar industry continuing to receive special treatment as the Florida Legislature’s favorite welfare recipient and shift the tax burden onto the backs of the public.

Caldwell is quick to point out that the Everglades Foundation and Florida Audubon supported HB 7065, but the Sierra Club and The Conservancy of Southwest Florida took an opposing position that the legislation did not go far enough to level the funding formula between the sugar industry and the taxpayers for Everglades restoration.

In fact, the Everglades Foundation and Florida Audubon only struck a compromise to support HB 7065 because Caldwell was supporting an earlier version of an amendment that would have greatly weakened water quality standards and removed the 1993 Statement of Principles that had been a guide for restoration efforts over the last 20 years. With the objectionable provisions removed in the final draft amendment, the Everglades Foundation and Florida Audubon were in damage control mode and reluctantly accepted the continuation of an inequitable funding formula for Everglades restoration.

To put the sugar industry’s $11 million annual contribution to Everglades restoration in perspective, Lee County taxpayers pay in excess of $30 million per year to the Okeechobee levy for work by the South Florida Water Management District in the Everglades Agricultural Area to provide drainage and irrigation of the sugar cane fields south of Lake Okeechobee. Lee County’s return on the investment is polluted water, fish kills and harmful algae blooms including red tide.

Certainly, the more conservative and responsible approach would be to support public policy that protects the interest of struggling taxpayers and hold the sugar industry accountable for the destruction of precious public resources including the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee, Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and coastal estuaries.

The people have a right to know the truth, and it is time for the public to demand that the Florida Legislature represent the public interest and not the special interest.

Ray Judah is a former Lee County commissioner.

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