Florida's Republican leaders have said little about their secret trips to Big Sugar's leased hunting ranch in Texas, but their record of selling out the public interest says plenty about the impact this incestuous relationship could have on state water policy. Their low regard for clean water, cozy dealings with the agriculture industry and consistent refusal to hold polluters accountable makes it difficult to envision a fair debate over how to manage the state's precious natural resource. If the Legislature really plans to focus on water policy next year, the deck should not be stacked in favor of big agricultural interests and against everyone else.
A Tampa Bay Times examination of secret trips by Republican lawmakers to King Ranch in Texas that were orchestrated and at least partially financed by U.S. Sugar shows everything that's wrong with the money-laundering that passes for legal campaign financing today. Gov. Rick Scott, state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, House Speaker Will Weatherford and the incoming speaker, Steve Crisafulli, have all confirmed they visited the ranch. None would say who joined them on the trips or what topics were discussed, claiming amnesia or refusing outright to answer.
The problem isn't merely that the law allows big donors to give unlimited sums to political parties and political committees, which the parties can on the flimsiest of rationales lavish on politicians who need not tell taxpayers what they received or who paid for it. A bigger problem is that elected leaders ignore the ethical conflicts and take these junkets, then expect Floridians to believe they are getting a fair shake when it's time for public policy debates.
These personal connections cultivated on hunting trips and other outings under the guise of fundraising have paid off handsomely for polluters writing the checks. Scott spent his first years as governor fighting the federal government over tougher water standards to clean up the state's polluted lakes, streams and coastal areas. He signed a bill last year that renewed a meager tax on sugar farming in the Everglades as part of a measure that also relieved the industry responsible for two-thirds of the pollution from any long-term liability for the cleanup costs.
Crisafulli, the incoming speaker eager for a debate on water policy, helped steer that bill to the House floor. He is represented by the same media consultant who doubles as the spokesman for the Florida Sugar Farmers, a coalition in which U.S. Sugar is a member. This year, Weatherford delayed action on a wide-ranging Senate bill to restore Florida's natural springs, saying he wanted to defer water policy to Crisafulli during his upcoming term as speaker. This former president of the Brevard County Farm Bureau has yet to outline his agenda publicly, but his background suggests he has a point of view more in line with Big Sugar than the little people.
U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, who also took a hunting trip to King Ranch, moved on the federal front last week to push another industry priority: blocking new federal oversight of state waterways and wetlands. The new rules could give businesses more certainty about where the Clean Water Act applies, but that didn't stop Southerland from trashing them as job killers and examples of "big government" bullying.
Florida faces serious choices in managing its water supply: How can it promote growth while also sustaining this resource? What role should reclaimed water play, who should pay to develop it and what users have priority? How does Florida limit overpumping by the agricultural sector while protecting this top economic player? The responsible answers will not be found through secret hunting trips to Texas and one-way conversations with the agricultural interests writing the big checks.