State Politics

As U.S. Sugar flexes muscle, Amendment 1 supporters fret about less money for land purchases

Supporters of Amendment 1, an environmental ballot measure that passed last year with a resounding 75 percent of the vote, are bracing for a legal battle with legislators over how to spend a $740 million windfall.

The showdown looms with less than a week left in the regular 2015 session. Lawmakers have set aside no more than $20 million next year for Florida Forever, the state’s public land acquisition program. Environmentalists had expected at least $300 million when the ballot measure passed less than six months ago.

“It’s pretty doggone clear that the intent was to acquire more land,” said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge. “If we don’t put meaningful dollars in land acquisition, it will go to court.”

Environmentalists say much of the obstruction comes from one company: U.S. Sugar.

Since the end of December, the Clewiston agriculture company and its executives have showered Republican and Democratic lawmakers with $550,000 in campaign contributions for their 2016 races.

Their lobbying has been focused on blocking one specific land purchase, property that they own south of Lake Okeechobee.

But their opposition to that single purchase has been so vociferous across-the-board that it has imperiled the overall Florida Forever program, said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida. When Altman proposed an amendment last month that would put $300 million into Florida Forever, U.S. Sugar lobbied against it out of fear that it would be used to purchase its property, Draper said.

“The sugar lobby has pushed lawmakers so hard that they’re confused,” Draper said. “A lot of them think they’re the same thing — (that) the U.S. Sugar property is Florida Forever.”

The company owns about 26,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee and another 20,000 near Clewiston. Environmentalists had identified this property as crucial in helping clean the Everglades. The land could be used for a reservoir that captures dirty discharges, improving the quality of water that drains into the Everglades.

But U.S. Sugar wants to develop 18,000 homes and 25 million square feet of stores, offices, warehouses and other commercial buildings on the company land instead. In November, the Department of Economic Opportunity objected to the project, giving the company until later this year to appeal.

If lawmakers bypass the state purchase, which has an option that expires in October, that would give U.S. Sugar a stronger case that its property no longer provides an opportunity for conservation or Everglades restoration activities.

Two lawmakers who have an outsized say on that purchase are the budget chiefs in the House and Senate, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes and Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

Each has a political action committee that received a $25,000 contribution from U.S. Sugar in February.

U.S. Sugar contributions didn’t stop there. The Republican Party of Florida was paid $159,382 since January, with another $35,000 going to the Republican Senatorial Campaign run by Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. The Florida Democratic Party was paid $45,000. On the day before the session started, the last day U.S. Sugar could make contributions to lawmakers, it gave a total of $25,500 to 22 lawmakers, half Republicans and half Democrats.

Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, has witnessed U.S. Sugar’s change of heart in selling its land.

He was chief of staff for then Gov. Charlie Crist when he helped negotiate a deal with U.S. Sugar where the state would buy the property at a market rate. At the time, U.S. Sugar executives Malcolm “Bubba” Wade and Robert Buker wrote op-eds in 2010 urging the deal.

Now Eikenberg heads the foundation that has been pushing its purchase. He’s been backed by a University of Florida study that identified the U.S. Sugar property as critical in cleaning the Everglades.

He said he’s been mystified by the opposition to the purchase from the same company that agreed to it in 2010.

“U.S. Sugar has put so much energy into killing it,” Eikenberg said. “And they’ve accomplished it.”

Asked why U.S. Sugar now opposes selling its land, company spokeswoman Judy Sanchez provided only a one-sentence statement. “We should be celebrating the implementation of 2013’s restoration strategies and working together in the Legislature to secure long term funding of ecosystem restoration.,” Sanchez said.

Lee said that Senate support for buying the U.S. Sugar property, once Eikenberg’s best hope, has vanished. That position falls in line with House leaders who have always opposed it.

“There is a belief that acquiring land in this moment in history is probably not the best bang-for-the-buck,” Lee said. “I’m not sure if we want to go out in the first year of (Amendment 1) and blow a bunch of money and throw in a bunch of projects without going through a process that identifies the best scientific use of these limited resources.”

Gov. Rick Scott, who won’t comment about the U.S. Sugar property, included $100 million in his proposed budget in January for Florida Forever land acquisition.

In recent meetings, Draper said he’s been encouraged by Senate leaders who have shown support for increasing the amount of money to be spent on Florida Forever.

But they’ve got a long way to go. Supporters of the amendment say that means that Florida Forever, a state program created in 1999 to fund public land acquisition, should have its initial authority to spend $300 million restored. The House budget provides about $10 million for land buys through Florida Forever. The Senate provides about $17 million.

Even Lee said he expects litigation over the Legislature’s Amendment 1 spending plan. So far, the amount earmarked for buying land is a pittance, said House Minority Leader Rep. Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach.

“It’s a form of malfeasance,” Pafford said. “We’ve been directed by the people to spend money to conserve land, and clearly that hasn’t happened the way 75 percent of Floridians wanted to do that.”

The issue has been delayed because of an unrelated showdown on Medicaid expansion, making it difficult to assess just how much money will be available.

“Everything is operating in the shadow of Medicaid,” said Clay Henderson, an Orlando lawyer and former president of the Florida Audubon Society who helped write the amendment.

If lawmakers return for a special session in June, that might help the cause, Henderson said.

“It’s hard to think it can get any worse,” he said. “But in a special session, lawmakers would go home and have to confront their constituents. That could make a big difference.”

Contact Michael Van Sickler at mvansickler@tampabay.com. Follow @mikevansickler.

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