Friday, October 19, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Visions of sugar dance in legislators' heads

It's merely an idea, but perhaps the oath of office for our state's elected panhandlers should be rewritten to read: "I do solemnly swear that I will support, protect and defend the sugar industry interests of the state of Florida; that I am duly compromised to hold office under the legalized bribes of various vested interests in this state, and I will well and faithfully perform the duties of a compliant shill and will to the best of my abilities follow the hunting laws of the great state of Texas for which I am about to board an airplane for an all-expense-paid trip by agricultural lobbyists to butcher unsuspecting critters, so help me (a lot!) the Republican Party of Florida."

Are there any elected power-hungry wannabes among Florida Republicans who haven't received an invitation to secret hunting vacations at the sprawling King Ranch in Texas courtesy of the state's big sugar daddies?

As Tampa Bay Times reporters Craig Pittman and Michael Van Sickler have reported, it's been an air shuttle service akin to the Berlin airlift. Prominent Republicans have been filling the skies between Florida and Texas to make their way to King Ranch for several days of bloodletting in pursuit of animals and plenty of schmoozing with sugar industry executives once everyone runs out of bullets.

Gov. Rick Scott schlepped around King Ranch. So did former House Speaker Dean Cannon, current Speaker Will Weatherford and future Speakers Steve Crisafulli and Richard Corcoran. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has been there, and so have House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel and House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee Chairman Matt Caldwell.

Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland also spent time getting his snout nuzzled by sugar honchos at King Ranch. It must have felt really good, because Southerland just introduced a bill that would block federal oversight of waterways and wetlands, which just so happens to be where a lot of sugarcane is harvested.

The trips are paid for with legalized bribes. The sugar industry gives money for the Tammany Hall-on-the-Prairie holidays to the Republican Party of Florida, which launders the cash back to the invited guests for travel expenses under the flimsy guise of "fundraising" activities. Still, if it walks like a bagman and talks like a bagman, it's still a bagman.

Neither the governor nor any of the other elected officials who were more than happy to accept sugar industry hospitality at King Ranch have been willing to discuss the trips in detail, name whom they spent time with during their contrived "hunting" excursions where the prey is practically propped up for them to shoot, or recount what subjects were discussed. But it's probably not unreasonable to assume when one of these chaps asked a lobbyist to please pass the sugar, it came with a check sticking out of the bowl. Fundraising.

Southerland has entered the cone of silence, refusing to reveal who invited him to King Ranch and whom he socialized with in between pretending to be Ernest Hemingway on safari. What should we call these junkets? "Islands in the Scheme"?

Incoming House Speaker Crisafulli referred questions about his King Ranch busker vacation to none other than Brian Hughes, a Tallahassee flack who also flacks for — ahem — Florida Sugar Farmers, U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals and the Florida Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative.

Hughes crafted a statement saying everything was perfectly fine. Whew, for a moment there, one might have thought these King Ranch sleepovers with lobbyists could have involved improper influence-peddling.

Crisafulli is notable in Tallahassee for his reluctance to speak to reporters, which is understandable since these snoopy scribblers want to ask about the speaker-designate's playing spin the scruples during his big sugar sabbatical.

Imagine the sense of worthlessness for those Republican lawmakers eager and willing to sell themselves out for a 16-point buck who have yet to earn an invitation to trade air kisses with the swells at King Ranch.

It's not fair. But isn't that the appeal of public service — the chance to dream of all those sugarplums yet to come?

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