Joe Negron's Lake Okeechobee bill could decide Enterprise Florida's fate
ST. PETERSBURG — The success or failure of Florida Senate President Joe Negron’s signature issue — building a reservoir on sugar-owned land south of Lake Okeechobee — may boil down to what happens to Gov. Rick Scott’s signature issue, saving Enterprise Florida.
That’s the take from Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, who spoke to the Tampa Bay Times editorial board on Tuesday.
By agreeing to save Enterprise Florida, Negron could win the governor’s support for SB 10, the bill that calls for building the reservoir he and his constituents want. Or by agreeing to kill Enterprise Florida, the Stuart Republican could win over House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, who is dead set on shutting down Scott’s job promotion agency.
“No doubt it will be part of those discussions,” Eikenberg said. He pointed out that so far Negron and the Senate have taken no position on Corcoran’s war on Scott’s job-promotion agency.
Negron wants the reservoir south of the lake as a way to cutting the environmentally damaging releases from the lake. The lake is penned in by an old earthen berm, built in 1930, that may or may not hold if the water level gets too high.
When heavy rain fills it up, to protect the people who live around it, the government agency that owns it dumps the lake’s water out to sea. That spreads its toxic contents to estuaries on both sides of the state, and starves Everglades National Park and Florida Bay of fresh water.
The lake’s discharges have caused problems for decades, ruining tourist businesses in both the Fort Myers and Stuart areas. Last year, a toxic algae bloom in the lake wound up spreading a stinky green goop along the beaches of Martin County, forcing them to close for the Fourth of July weekend. Negron represents Martin County, so he’s got strong hometown pressure to solve the issue.
SB 10 calls for the state to buy 60,000 acres of land now owned by sugar companies south of the lake and turn it into a reservoir big enough to hold the lake’s discharges and let them out southward through wetlands that would filter out the pollution.
If there aren’t enough willing sellers, then the bill calls for buying 153,000 acres of land from U.S. Sugar through an option the state acquired in 2010 under former Gov. Charlie Crist.
The estimated price tag is steep: $2.4 billion.
U.S. Sugar is strongly opposed to this. So is the South Florida Water Management District, which is controlled by Scott. Although the governor has not taken a position on SB10, U.S. Sugar is one of the five largest contributors to his political action committee. The company also took legislative leaders on secret hunting trips to Texas in 2014, and indicated in a recent meeting with the Times editorial board that they may have started doing so again.
Corcoran, meanwhile, is hot to take the budget axe to Enterprise Florida, a taxpayer-supported program that uses state money to attract private employers. Corcoran considers it to be a complete failure. Scott feels strongly otherwise, and each has been bashing the other over the future of the program.
That puts Enterprise Florida in the position of being a potential bargaining chip in discussions over Negron’s Lake Okeechobee bill, noted Eikenberg, who said he recently met with Scott to talk about the bill.
“From our perspective, they have this issue on the table” that could be used for bargaining on the Everglades reservoir, said Eikenberg, a former chief of staff for Crist and former U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr.
Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.