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CSE's work in Florida for the sugar industry typifies operations

Citizens for a Sound Economy's Florida operations exemplify its activism.

CSE took in sugar industry contributions _ $280,000 each from U.S. Sugar Corp. and Florida Crystals Corp., and $140,000 from the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida _ from October to December 1998.

That November, CSE Foundation issued a news release asserting that the Everglades project would cost $120 per household in Florida and could result in the loss of 2,879 jobs. The foundation also released a poll concluding that the vast majority of Floridians did not support tax increases to finance the project.

Describing CSE as the "voice of consumers for free enterprise," CSE representatives in polo shirts with the CSE logo showed up at a series of local hearings on the plan.

And in early 1999, the CSE Foundation unveiled a study charging that a peer review panel appointed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt lacked objectivity.

Meanwhile, sugar industry representatives kept a low profile, asserting publicly that, in principle, they supported the restoration plan.

The Florida Legislature approved a revised version of it last year, but hurdles remain, including congressional funding. The companies said they did not renew their contributions to CSE in 1999 because CSE's outspoken criticism no longer reflected their position.

CSE officials, emphasizing their group's independence, noted that, on a separate issue, CSE's opposition to sugar import quotas is sharply at odds with the domestic sugar industry.

But U.S. Sugar Corp. spokesman Robert Buker noted that CSE "has not been in the front row of the debate" over import quotas since it received industry funding.

The Everglades has been just one of CSE's Florida projects. Jon L. Shebel, president and chief executive of Associated Industries of Florida, representing 10,000 businesses, credits CSE with helping enact the broad tort reform last year that was business' top priority in the state.

"They've made a difference in Florida," said Shebel. "We had a major war going on with the trial lawyers. At times (CSE) would take the TV, and we would take the radio. They have access to big dollars that we don't have access to. . . . It's added a new dimension."

According to CSE documents, at least $460,000, mainly in corporate donations, was earmarked for the project in 1998. The funds included the Huizenga contributions, $25,000 each from Hertz Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG, and $10,000 from Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group.

"It was a meeting of the minds," said Huizenga Holdings spokesman George Rizriet. "We trust that they're going to do what they agree to do, which is to support the issue."

When necessary, CSE displayed a willingness to use hardball tactics in pursuit of tort reform. Martin County attorney Joseph Negron, a Republican, felt CSE's bite last fall when the group ran a stream of TV ads in favor of his GOP primary opponent in a special election for Florida House.

The ads branded Negron a "trial attorney," and although they did not specifically urge a vote against him, the implication was clear that voters should back Negron's opponent, who had pledged to protect the recently passed tort reform.

"Our political department orchestrated the whole thing," said Associated Industries' Shebel. "We called CSE and said here's the plan, can you do something? They did TV. We did radio, direct mail and all the analytical work."

"It's a lethal way to go after somebody," said Negron. "They can fly under the radar screen because they don't have to give you notice. There are no limits, no restrictions and no disclosure. It's put the fear of God in a number of Republican candidates."