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Touting prosugar bill, Southerland first U.S. congressman to confirm King Ranch trip

TALLAHASSEE — Standing alongside Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and representatives from business groups, U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland on Monday touted federal legislation to block federal oversight of waterways and wetlands in favor of state and local government agencies.

"If the big government bullies are successful, it will mean higher costs for doing business, more uncertainty in the workplace, and fewer jobs," the Panama City Republican said during a news conference in the state Capitol. "States and local governments are sometimes better able to manage waters within their boundaries than the D.C. bureaucrats a thousand miles away."

Southerland's bill enjoys wide support from business groups like the Florida Chamber and the Florida sugar industry, which has faced increasing regulation over agricultural pollution, especially in the Everglades .

Last month, the Times/Herald reported that leading Florida Republicans including Putnam, Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Will Weatherford, had taken secret hunting trips to a lodge leased by the U.S. Sugar Corp. at historic King Ranch in Texas. But they wouldn't disclose details about the trips, calling them Republican Party fundraisers.

Monday, Southerland became the first U.S. congressman to acknowledge he went to King Ranch for a hunting trip. Tuesday, U.S. Sugar told the Times he did not stay at the company lodge. Southerland's spokesman on Tuesday said the congressman was at King Ranch "to primarily discuss immigration and border security,'' and while there "participated in a hunt that was in no way connected to U.S. Sugar.'' He did not provide further details.

Southerland refused to explain Monday who invited him and who he was there with, saying only, "I pay for all of my tickets.'' He referred questions to his spokesman, Matt McCullough, who said he was unable to provide details.

Southerland's proposed "Regulatory Overreach Protection Act'' is headed to the floor of the U.S. House next month. Southerland introduced the bill in July. Although he describes its support as bipartisan, all but five of its 120 co-sponsors are Republicans, including U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores. No Florida Democrat is a sponsor.

The bill would let the states decide which wetlands deserve protection, potentially saving farmers and developers time and money dealing with the federal government.

It's opposed by the Florida Conservation Coalition, which Monday issued a statement of support for continued federal oversight of wetlands and other bodies of water. That group was founded by former Florida governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, whose daughter Gwen is a Democrat seeking to unseat Southerland.

The federal water management law Southerland's bill seeks to curtail, the Clean Water Act, passed Congress by an overwhelming margin in 1972.

The main part of the act enjoys widespread support. That section required clean-up of point-source pollution — think sewer plants dumping waste into Tampa Bay and other waterways.

What's controversial is the section that protects wetlands.

Under the act, the Army Corps of Engineers is in charge, issuing wetlands-filling permits to landowners who meet certain requirements. The Environmental Protection Agency can veto permits, but has done so only 13 times.

A sponsor of the act, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said it was supposed to cover "all water bodies, including main streams and their tributaries, for water quality purposes."

But two recent U.S. Supreme Court cases produced tremendous confusion about whether the act only covers navigable water bodies — which would exclude many wetlands.

So the EPA and the corps this year proposed new regulations to clarify the situation.

Across the country, agricultural interests have blasted the proposed rules as a power grab by Washington bureaucrats. Southerland's bill does far more than criticize the rules however; it shifts power to the states.

Monday, Putnam mocked the federal government for wanting oversight of lands that are "seasonably or occasionally wet."

"Folks, your front yard is mushy right now," Putnam said. "This has an enormous impact for homeowners, cities and counties and businesses of every stripe as they will be forced to have higher costs and much bigger headaches dealing with the federal outreach of what should be Florida's responsibility."

Asked later if state and local officials, especially those who accept King Ranch trips, are more susceptible to political pressure than federal agency officials, Putnam said no.

"It is easier to hold locally elected officials accountable than it is to hold a bureaucrat accountable who is not accountable to anyone other than the civil service system," Putnam said.

Yet Putnam, Southerland and representatives from business groups made some misleading assertions about the federal oversight of wetlands.

Putnam and Southerland each said bureaucrats "a thousand miles away" call the shots on wetlands. Actually, decisions about Florida wetlands permits are made in the Corps of Engineers' offices in Jacksonville, Tampa and other locations around the state.

Nor is the corps much of a naysayer, contrary to Southerland's comments. A 2005 review by the Times found that from 1999 to 2003, the corps approved more than 12,000 wetland permits in Florida. They rejected just one.

In Washington, Florida's sugar industry unites politicians from both parties. In 2012 and 2013, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson together defeated an amendment to the Farm Bill that would have curtailed the federal sugar quota. It's one of several measures blamed for keeping the price of U.S.-produced sugar high and blocking foreign competition.

Southerland was introduced Monday by the chief lobbyist for probusiness group Associated Industries, Brewster B. Bevis.

Bevis posted a photo of himself looming over a dead buck on Facebook. The caption said he shot it at King Ranch. After the Times/Herald published stories about King Ranch, however, Bevis took down the photo.

When asked Monday why he took the photo down, Bevis declined to answer.

"I'm not here to talk about King Ranch," he said.

Times Washington bureau chief Alex Leary contributed to this report.Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes. Contact Michael Van Sickler at mvansickler@tampabay.com. Follow @mikevansickler.

NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect the following correction: U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland said he took a hunting trip to King Ranch in Texas, but he did not stay at the U.S. Sugar lodge there, company officials said. A story in Monday's Times was incorrect about his lodging.

Touting prosugar bill, Southerland first U.S. congressman to confirm King Ranch trip 08/18/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 19, 2014 6:46pm]
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