One of the broadest assaults on the Everglades cleanup effort is speeding toward passage in the Florida House. The measure would put the state's taxpayers on the hook for pollution caused by the agriculture industry — and open an avenue for even more environmental damage down the road. Shifting cleanup costs from Big Sugar to those who are downstream from its dirty fields is Robin Hood in reverse and undermines the intent of a voters' mandate to have polluters pay. Gov. Rick Scott and the Senate need to stop it.
The measure, HB 7065, would rewrite the state's plan to clean pollution flowing from farms in the Everglades' agricultural zones to the protection areas in the south. Supporters say the legislation is needed to codify the agreement between Scott and the federal government that calls on Florida to spend $880 million over 12 years to build storm water treatment and water storage to intercept runoff from the farms, preventing further pollution of an ecosystem that is vital to the state's economy, environment and drinking water needs.
The legislation, though, does far more than that. It would roll back the enforcement of water discharge permits, clearing the way for farming operations to pollute regardless of how much the state erred in issuing them a permit or policing it. That opens a door for polluters and increases the pressure on regulators at the South Florida Water Management District to follow the Legislature's lead in going soft on the industry. Even the district opposes that measure. It would rather keep the permitting process intact than create a public impression that the system is corrupt.
The measure also caps the industry's financial obligation for funding the cleanup. While the legislation would extend the $25 per acre agriculture tax until 2024 — eight years longer than under current law — it holds that those payments and improved management practices would "fulfill" the industry's obligation for the cleanup under Florida's "Polluter Pay" requirement in the state Constitution.
That is an outright sellout. Extending the agriculture tax generates less than $7 million per year — pennies compared to the $880 million that taxpayers will spend to treat the polluted water. The very governor who forced the water management districts to cut their budgets now intends to ask Florida taxpayers to commit $32 million a year for 12 years for this program — all in addition to the money that will come from property owners in South Florida. Meanwhile the industry responsible for two-thirds of the pollution entering the Everglades walks away from any long-term obligations even before the new water projects are in place.
Just two weeks into the legislative session, HB 7065 has sailed through two committees and is headed for the House floor. This bill has leadership's blessing, which is why Scott and the Senate are likely the last defense. Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-New Port Richey, who is shepherding the Senate bill, which is much better, needs to do what the House and several of his bay area counterparts failed to do and insist that the polluters pay their share. Shifting these costs onto the public is unfair, and every dollar the state spends on behalf of polluters is a dollar it won't have for police, schools and other legitimate priorities.