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Bill to cap sugar clean-up of Everglades gets swift approval by House committee

A bill that would shift some of the cost of cleaning up the Everglades from sugar and agricultural interests to Florida taxpayers and South Florida property owners is on the fast track in the Florida House.

The measure, which phases out the tax on the agricultural industry to pay for pollution cleanup, received unanimous bi-partisan approval in the House State Affairs Commitee Thursday, just two days after it was introduced.

Supporters say the legislation (PCB 13-01) is needed to codify the Everglades cleanup settlement between Gov. Rick Scott and the federal government, in which the state agreed to spend $880 million to follow through on cleaning up the state's famed River of Grass.

The agriculture industry, led by sugar growers, are pushing elements of the bill sponsored by Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-LeHigh Acres, that would also cap their contribution to the clean-up plan. The bill says that the tax, known as athe by Agriculture Privilege Tax, along with implementation of "best management practices" for pollution abatement on their farms meet the requirements of the "polluter pays" constitutional amendment. 

Under the bill, the agricultural tax of $25 per acre, which is set to drop to $10 in 2017, would be extended until 2024 and then drop to $10 per acre after that. The sugar industry says that means they will pay about $6.6 million more than they would have had to pay if the tax were not extended but environmentalists say that is not enough. They want sugar, dairy and other farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area north of Lake Okeechobee to pay a larger share since data shows that 60 percent of the pollution into the Everglades comes from the agricultural area.

"This has been a long effort. It's working but we have more work to do,'' said Eric Eikenberg, director of the Everglades Foundation. He cited statistics that show there are areas where pollution levels are still too high.

He urged the committee to reject Caldwell's bill and instead embrace an alternative Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-New Port Richey, that puts the settlement agreement into law but remains silent on how the payments will be made at 2017.

Supporters say that the agriculture industry has been a good steward of the land, resulting in a faster decline in phosphorous pollution than required, and has paid its fair share.

"Everybody in the South Florida Water Management District pays ad valorem taxes,'' said Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula. "The farmers in the EAA are the only ones that pay something additional. The farmers in the EAA are not the only ones that contribute nutrients into the system."

Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, asked Phil Parsons of the Florida Sugar Cane League what the impact would be on consumers. "It won't have any impact -- certainly not any adverse impact,'' Parsons replied. 

Eikenberg disagreed. The House bill shifts more of the responsibility of paying the cost of cleanup from the industry to taxpayers. "It's not just a shift, it's a shaft -- for taxpayers,'' he said after the meeting. 

Gov. Rick Scott told the Herald/Times in an interview this week that he supports the Simpson bill but hadn't seen the House approach. "What's important to me is the settlement,'' he said. "It’s the right thing. We have mesuarement. We have a goal to improve the water quality and improvement of the flow of water and that’s important to me.”

The legislation to alter the sugar tax three years before it expires is one of a series of bills moving quickly through the legislature this cycle. Proponents are hoping to take advantage of the Republican control of the Legislature and governor's mansion before the next election.

The sugar industry was one of the largest contributors to both the Republican Party of Florida and the Democratic Party in the last election cycle.