TALLAHASSEE — Fresh off promising that the Florida Legislature won't raise a dime in taxes, lawmakers on Tuesday enacted a law that allows citrus growers to triple the 1-cent-per-box tax on oranges and grapefruits to pay for disease research.
The measure, tucked into HB 981, an agriculture bill overridden on Tuesday, won't raise much money in revenue terms — between $3.5 million to $4.5 million a year. It's a tax the industry asked to have imposed on itself, so that it can use the proceeds to fight the citrus greening disease and, growers say, they'll likely eat the cost.
But for tea party activists who trooped up to the Capitol Tuesday to remind legislators that they're watching, the measure doesn't pass the purity test. To them, it's proof that lawmakers have difficulty matching rhetoric with reality.
"This isn't what they told us about this bill," said Everett Wilkinson, head of the South Florida tea party group who came to the Capitol. "It's obvious they have a hard time following through on their word."
Senate President Mike Haridopolos addressed about 70 tea party activists Tuesday during the one-day special session to override eight of Gov. Charlie Crist's vetoes, including the agriculture bill. He said he asked the citizen groups to hold lawmakers accountable.
"We will do more with less, we will tighten our belt and we will not raise taxes a single dime," Haridopolos promised during his Tuesday speech in the Senate.
But Haridopolos, a Republican from Merritt Island whose district includes part of the state's citrus growing regions, said he disagrees that the "citrus research assessment" qualifies as a tax. It allows the industry to raise up to 3 cents per box on 90-lb. boxes.
"This was not a tax passed by the Legislature," Haridopolos said. "If folks vote to tax themselves, that's their choice."
A 1992 state law authorized the citrus industry to impose the box tax to pay for citrus marketing. Growers were to be surveyed every six years to see if they wanted to continue to impose the tax on themselves, said Andrew Meadows, a spokesman for the Florida Citrus Mutual.
Under the bill taken up Tuesday, the Legislature created the Citrus Research and Development Foundation and allowed it to raise the box tax from 1 to 3 cents.
In December 2009, growers voted to continue the tax, establish the foundation, and raise the tax to 3 cents to finance research into HLB, the citrus greening disease. The contagious disease is widespread in the state's citrus-producing counties and is destroying trees and threatening the $9 billion industry, Meadows said.
"To say this is a worldwide citrus crisis is not an exaggeration," he said.
Meadows said that because citrus growers have to accept whatever price orange juice processors pay them, "growers will eat the tax."
Wilkinson, of the tea party, doesn't see it that way.
"If they wanted this, why couldn't they simply pay for it with their own funds?" he asked. "In the end, it's going to be passed on to the consumer. We need to ask ourselves if we want the government involved in more things or not."
Haridopolos is unapologetic. He acknowledged that while many legislators campaigned on the principles espoused by the tea party — less government, reduced state spending and lower taxes — they wouldn't always agree.
"I don't know if we're ever going to do things perfectly. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Haridopolos said. "In this case, the folks who grow oranges felt their industry could be severely jeopardized if they did not find the revenue sources to fight this major problem."
Herald/Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.