Big Sugar money keeps flowing to Everglades restoration under the Florida Legislature’s compromise measure that Friday drew support from environmental groups and agriculture alike.
The state House of Representatives unanimously approved changes to the Everglades Forever Act that extend taxes on sugar cane growers and other agriculture to help pay for cleaning up water pollution that washes off South Florida farms and into the famed River of Grass.
Environmental groups fought earlier versions of the legislation that they said threatened to cap Big Sugar’s Everglades cleanup requirements and weaken the ability of Everglades’ advocates to challenge water permits for polluting farms.
Those measures were dropped and the agricultural tax extended 10 years at existing rates under the compromise version. But Big Sugar succeeds in keeping the taxes from going up and gets a more concrete timetable for a gradual reduction of the $25-per-acre-per-year tax.
The bill, HB 7065, brought all groups to the table, said Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres. There was little debate Friday on the House floor other than comments praising Caldwell for his work before the measure was approved.
“It has gone 180 degrees from the original bill,” said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, which endorsed the new version of the legislation. “That was a big victory on the environmental side.”
While the deal succeeds in securing one long-term funding source for some of Gov. Rick Scott’s new Everglades water pollution cleanup plan, it doesn’t cover the entire $880 million price tag.
The legislation still leaves Florida taxpayers picking up too much of the tab to clean up pollution phosphorus flowing into the Everglades — most of which comes from farmland, according to the environmental group Friends of the Everglades.
“So, the Republican, Tea Party-leaning legislature seems to favor Big Sugar over the taxpayers,” according to Albert Slap, of Friends of the Everglades.
The environmental groups objected to earlier versions of the bill they warned could nullify attempts to add cleanup requirements for farmland and could shield agriculture from picking up more of the long-term restoration costs.
“The worry we have had all along [is] the public taking another shellacking from the sugar industry,” said Charles Lee, of Audubon of Florida. “We are kind of in a mode I would call damage control. … The bill has been substantially improved.”
The changes succeeded in taking out most of what concerned environmental groups and kept the “agricultural privilege” tax in place but also sets a window for it to gradually be reduced.
According to the new version, the $25 per acre tax on growers in the Everglades Agricultural Area remains until 2026 — 10 years beyond the current version was due for a reduction.
Between 2027 and 2035, it declines from $20 to $15 and then in 2036 holds at $10 per acre.
“It provides what [environmental groups] wanted, which is a stable source of funding. And it creates certainty for us,” said Gaston Cantens, vice president for sugar producer Florida Crystals. “We reached a level of consensus.”
Staff writer Kathleen Haughney contributed to this report. email@example.com, 561-228-5504 or Twitter@abreidnews
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