New Governor Ron DeSantis, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried no friends of Big Sugar

Environmental groups are hopeful that having a governor and agriculture commissioner who are not beholden to the sugar industry will improve chances for Everglades restoration and combating pollution.
Sugar growers may face a different dynamic in Tallahassee with the new govenor and agriculture commissioner claiming they’ll stand up to one of the state’s most powerful industries. (AP Photo/The Tampa Bay Times files, Sam Owens)
Sugar growers may face a different dynamic in Tallahassee with the new govenor and agriculture commissioner claiming they’ll stand up to one of the state’s most powerful industries. (AP Photo/The Tampa Bay Times files, Sam Owens)
Published November 26
Updated November 26

Florida's sugar growers have long been one of the most politically powerful industries in the state, with dozens of friendly politicians creating or blocking laws to benefit its bottom line.

But the 2018 election is likely to leave a sour taste in Big Sugar's mouth.

Now that the recount's results have been certified, Florida will have a governor and an agriculture commissioner who are not exactly friendly to sugar. Governor-elect Ron DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner-elect Nikki Fried were both opposed by sugar interests, but won anyway.

Environmental groups are hoping that despite being from different parties (DeSantis is a pro-Trump Republican, Fried a pro-marijuana Democrat), the pair will team up to take on the sugar industry.

"Sugar has always had a certain hold on even the best of Florida's governors," said Charles Lee, longtime Audubon of Florida lobbyist. This is the first time since the 1970s "that sugar has lost that level of control over the executive branch."

And Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said it's high time the businesses that have been hurt by the state's toxic algae crisis — anglers, charter boat captains, real estate sales people, motels and others in the tourism industry — have a larger voice in government.

At this point, though, sugar industry officials don't sound like they're panicking about a loss of clout.

"We have had direct conversations with the new agriculture commissioner and indirect conversations with the DeSantis camp, and they are interested in the same things we are," said David Goodlett, senior vice president of the Florida Sugar Growers Cooperative. "We're encouraged by our conversations with them and we look forward to working with them."

U.S. Sugar vice president Judy Sanchez said in an email statement, “We look forward to working with Governor-elect Ron DeSantis, Agriculture Commissioner-elect Nikki Fried, and other local, state and federal officials as they take office so that Florida farmers continuing providing food at future Thanksgiving meals.”

Officials from Florida Crystals, the state's other large sugar grower, did not respond to requests for comment.

DeSantis first ran afoul of sugar as a congressmen, when he took a stand against government price supports for the industry. During the campaign he repeatedly hammered his primary opponent, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, for his close ties to sugar. As for Fried, the industry heavily backed her opponent, state Rep. Matt Caldwell.

Sugar has held such sway over Florida government that between 2011 and 2014, U.S. Sugar paid more than $95,000 to the Republican Party of Florida for at least 20 weekend flights for Gov. Rick Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and a host of legislative leaders to King Ranch in Texas for hunting trips.

What does the sugar industry get in return? In 2013, when sugar companies wanted no-bid, long-term leases for 14,000 acres of state land that was supposed to be used for Everglades restoration, Scott and the agriculture commissioner joined the rest of the Cabinet in voting yes.

And earlier this month, Scott appointees on the South Florida Water Management District board outraged environmental activists by voting to extend leases to sugar companies for land that's supposed to be used for building a crucial reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.

They also voted to end a 30-year-old legal agreement giving a federal court oversight on its Everglades pollution cleanup efforts, a move that Eikenberg said showed the water district had "gone rogue."

"I call it 'Dark Thursday,' " Lee said. He expressed hope that DeSantis will appoint new water district members and also drop the effort to end the court agreement.

The environmental groups are hopeful that Fried will be tougher on polluting farmers than Putnam has been.

State law says the farms around the northern edge of Lake Okeechobee don't need any permits with strict pollution limits. Instead, they just have to follow "best management practices" in their farming. Those management practices are supposed to cut the flow of damaging chemicals to the lake.

The latest report from the South Florida water agency shows the approach has had no effect at all. The amount of pollution flowing into the lake from the north — where half the land is owned by agriculture — is about the same as it was in 1985.

A state law passed in 2016 calls for the agriculture commissioner to adopt ways to verify whether the sugar companies are really following best management practices. The law says agency rules "shall include enforcement procedures" if a farm is found not to be doing what it said it would.

But Putnam's agency didn't adopt any enforcement procedures. Instead, the rules say that if any sugar company refuses to cooperate, even after repeated negotiations, the agency will report it to the state Department of Environmental Protection, but take no other action. Fried may take a tougher stance than Putnam did, Lee speculated.

Pollution in Lake Okeechobee feeds the toxic blue-green algae that has smothered the lake and hurt tourism on both coasts in 2016 and this year as well. Efforts to combat that by building a new reservoir south of the lake ran into opposition from sugar companies that did not want to give up any land to the state.

Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] or . Follow @craigtimes.

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