A bill that would shift some of the cost of cleaning up the Everglades from sugar and agricultural interests to Florida taxpayers and South Florida property owners is on the fast track in the Florida House.
The measure, which phases out the tax on the agriculture industry to pay for pollution cleanup, received unanimous bipartisan approval in the House State Affairs Committee on Thursday, just two days after it was introduced.
Supporters say the legislation (PCB 13-01) is needed to codify the Everglades cleanup settlement between Gov. Rick Scott and the federal government. The state agreed to spend $880 million under the deal to follow through on cleaning up the state’s famed River of Grass.
The agriculture industry, led by sugar growers, wants to expand that agreement to also cap the industry’s contribution to the cleanup plan. Under the bill sponsored by Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-LeHigh Acres, the tax that has been paid by the industry since 1994, known as the Agriculture Privilege Tax, would combine with pollution abatement efforts used by farmers called “best management practices” to meet the industry’s requirements to pay for the cleanup.
Under the “polluter pays” constitutional amendment passed by voters in 1996, the producers of the phosphorus that has fouled the Everglades ecosystem for decades must be “primarily responsible” for paying the cleanup costs.
The sugar industry argues that it has paid its required share through the $25 per acre agriculture tax and by implementing expensive cleanup practices. The tax is set to drop to $10 in 2017 but, under the bill, it would be extended until 2024 at $25 an acre and then drop to $10 per acre.
The farmers estimate their contribution will equal about $6.6 million more than they would have had to pay if the tax were not extended, but environmentalists say that is not enough. They want sugar, dairy and other farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area north of Lake Okeechobee to pay a larger share since data shows that 60 percent of the pollution into the Everglades comes from the agricultural area.
The House bill shifts more of the responsibility of paying cleanup costs from the industry to taxpayers, said Eric Eikenberg, director of the Everglades Foundation. “It’s not just a shift, it’s a shaft — for taxpayers,” he said after the meeting.
Eikenberg urged the committee to reject Caldwell’s bill and instead embrace an alternative Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-New Port Richey.
Simpson’s bill would put the settlement agreement into law but remain silent on changes to the agricultural tax.
Supporters say that the agriculture industry has been a good steward of the land, resulting in a faster decline in phosphorous pollution than required. Opponents warn that local property owners whose taxes finance the South Florida Water Management District will shoulder most of the cleanup costs.
The district expects to use $220 million in reserves and $300 million from new growth to pay for its share, and the governor has recommended spending $60 million a year in general revenue.
“Everybody in the South Florida Water Management District pays ad valorem taxes. The farmers in the EAA are the only ones that pay something additional,” said Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, adding that the polluting nutrients come from not only farmers but runoff from urban areas.
Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, asked Phil Parsons of the Florida Sugar Cane League what the impact would be on consumers. “It won’t have any impact — certainly not any adverse impact,” Parsons replied.
Eikenberg disagreed. “This has been a long effort. It’s working, but we have more work to do,” he said.
The legislation to alter the sugar tax three years before it expires is one of a series of controversial bills moving quickly through the Legislature this session. Proponents are hoping to take advantage of the Republican control of the Legislature and governor’s mansion before the next election.
The sugar industry was one of the largest contributors to both the Republican Party of Florida and the Democratic Party in the last election cycle.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MaryEllenKlas and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas