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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Ties clear between money, water policy

A state program uses tax dollars to pay private farmers to hold back water from Lake Okeechobee in an effort to filter pollutants before they reach the Everglades basin. It’s a costly, piecemeal approach that amounts to corporate welfare by a state that refuses to take a broader approach to the cleanup effort.
A state program uses tax dollars to pay private farmers to hold back water from Lake Okeechobee in an effort to filter pollutants before they reach the Everglades basin. It’s a costly, piecemeal approach that amounts to corporate welfare by a state that refuses to take a broader approach to the cleanup effort.
Published May 15, 2015

Want the Florida Legislature to fund your pet project? Break out the helicopter and the checkbook. That worked for agricultural giant Alico, which lavished influential state lawmakers with helicopter tours and five-figure donations to their political action committees at the same time the company was seeking millions of dollars in tax support for the controversial business of water farming.

As the Tampa Bay Times' Craig Pittman and Michael Van Sickler reported, few stories illustrate how political contributions and state contracts go hand in hand in Tallahassee as well as the state's water farming scheme. The program uses tax dollars to pay private farmers to hold back water from Lake Okeechobee in an effort to filter pollutants before they reach the Everglades basin. It's a costly, piecemeal approach that amounts to corporate welfare by a state that refuses to take a broader approach to the cleanup effort.

As money for the program ran out last year, Alico turned to the Legislature for state tax money to keep the project going. Alico stood to win some $120 million from the program over the next 11 years. In January 2014, before the legislative session, the company took key lawmakers on a helicopter ride around the lake. Among those on board: Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, then the House majority whip, and House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, who wielded an outsized influence on the budget. Within days of the flight, Alico contributed $15,000 to Young's political action committee and $25,000 to McKeel's PAC.

The trips and the money kept flowing. The following month, the passenger list included Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who is in line for the Senate presidency. Alico donated $10,000 to his PAC about a week after, and later sent another $20,000. Alico contributed a total of $165,399 to nearly a quarter of the Legislature in the run-up to last year's session — and it proved to be a good investment. In May 2014, the Legislature included $13 million in the budget for several water farming projects. A company spokeswoman denied that Alico coordinated the helicopter trips with the PAC contributions. The time line suggests otherwise.

The water farming program is suspect enough, with the state paying millions of dollars to large agricultural operations to store water in ad hoc fashion instead of developing a broader approach to cleaning and storing water on publicly owned lands.

But the Alico copter rides and donations point to a giant loophole in Florida's campaign finance laws. Though lawmakers are limited to $1,000 per donor for their individual political campaigns, state law also allows them to create PACs that can collect checks for unlimited amounts. Lawmakers have wide discretion in spending the money, and they don't have to report any specifics on legislation that donors are trying to influence.

The Alico trips did not end with the 2014 vote. The money the Legislature approved was good for just one year of the long-term contracts. Alico continued to give, and in October it flew Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, to the lake. Unlike Galvano, McKeel or Young, however, Lee disclosed the ride as a contribution on his campaign finance report. Young said she was told by a House attorney that the tour was not a gift and that no reporting was required.

Private helicopter trips; donations to PACs that fund their political careers, expenses and agendas; the honor system for reporting it all — this episode vividly shows how money and connections drive public policy and funding decisions. And it's not old news: Lawmakers pushed for $32 million for water farming in the 2016 budget that fell apart last month, making it virtually certain the money will reappear when lawmakers meet in June for a special session. It's no wonder such bad policy has come from such a self-serving process.