Florida’s sugar companies have been waging a public relations campaign that aims to create a perception that sugar is a responsible partner in protecting Florida’s environment. But the truth in the past has been quite different.
The Everglades ecosystem is arguably the most important driver of Florida’s sustainability (at least peninsular Florida). The one of a kind environmental feature is unique to Florida and Florida alone. But many southeast Florida Democrats have consistently ignored the need to protect and preserve the River of Grass and have become in the process become addicted to sugar money in a way that many in the GOP has not.
No industry has done more damage to the fragile Everglades system than big sugar. Two other issues have hurt the Everglades- the pace of development in southeast and southwest Florida and also the lasting impact of Hurricane Donna in 1960 which significantly altered much of the composition of the ecosystem (no Hurricane since has done that type of damage and in fact Hurricane Andrew’s impact may have helped the endangered American Crocodile create new nesting areas.) Runoff from sugar has caused many of the problems the Everglades now faces. The following is from Friends of the Everglades:
The Florida Independent published a report on May 2nd, 2012, that deserves wide attention, “Everglades suffering from sulfate runoff, Methylmercury contamination”. Friends of the Everglades has been studying issues related to mercury contamination in the Everglades. Data is accumulating that sugar farms are a major source of contamination, through the use of sulfur in their farming practices. The Florida legislature has proven intransigent on mercury contamination as it has on phosphorous, the subject of more than two decades of litigation in federal courts. Friends of the Everglades believes that the polluters must be held accountable for the full costs of their pollution. In fact, that provision was put in the Florida Constitution through a ballot referendum approved by Florida voters in 1996 but it has never been enacted by the legislature. Although sugar growers complain that pollution comes from other sources and not their lands, it is clear that much, much more could be done to keep pollution on private lands and not flowing into lands owned by the public, including Everglades National Park and the national wildlife refuges.
In the final quarter of 2011 the FDP raised in $45,000 in sugar money and in 2012 the FDP raised more than $200,000 from sugar, which gave the lobby a disproportionate influence over Democratic elected officials. Then in 2013, Sugar continued the march giving more money to the Florida Democratic Party with $60,000 over the final two quarters …. Sugar’s subsidy in congress has also been saved time and time again thanks to the votes of Florida Democrats. At one time in the late 1990s large elements of the national GOP leadership were committed to cutting the subsidy including Majority Leader Dick Armey, but it was largely Democrats in this state that fought them with some help from the Clinton White House and eventually won.
Despite a reputation that has been well earned that Republicans are less environmentally conscious than Democrats, In southern Florida more often than not, those who have strongly opposed Big Sugar are Republicans. Many south Florida Republicans have in the past supported “Polluters Pay” legislation and constitutional amendments. Conservative arguments were made stating making polluters pay would keep property taxes lower and enhance economic development in way of tourism dollars and other eco-related industries. As a liberal, I subscribe to these arguments even if made by conservatives.
Many southern Florida Republicans including Congressmen E. Clay Shaw, Porter Goss (later CIA Director) and Dan Miller strongly opposed subsidies for the sugar industry and supported Everglades Restoration. The same can be said for several southern Florida Republicans who have served in the state legislature over the past 15 years. At the same time, big sugar has created influence within the Democratic Party particularly in Broward and Palm Beach counties. This has relieved the pressure on the companies whose influence on damaging the Everglades as it once was, cannot be disputed.
The lawyers and lobbyists from southeast Florida who worked hard to promote, protect and preserve the Everglades in the 1990s and 2000s were disproportionately Republicans. (While those interested in preserving the Everglades from outside southern Florida were disproportionately Democrats) While many Republicans, including Jeb Bush remained bad on the environment, Governor Charlie Crist was excellent on Everglades related issues and he could draw his lineage from Republicans who as conservationists put protection of our natural resources over campaign cash and polluters.
In the past some Democrats have told me that sugar money is essential to funding the party and legislative candidates because the Republicans have all the other corporate money locked up. Democratic candidates, party executive committees, local Democratic clubs and partisan functions have all been recipients of sugar’s generous contributions in recent years. Make no mistake about it- sugar plays politically because they want to continue to keep business going as usual and have no intention of allowing the type of full scale, and well funded Everglades restoration that is needed. Considering that many Democrats have gone along with delays to Everglades restoration, Sugar has seemingly bought some allies.
In 2003, when Scott Maddox was chairman of the Florida Democratic Party he attempted to make opposition to a sugar backed bill in the state legislature that would slow down Everglades Restoration. What Chairman Maddox found was the support of many Democrats for the sugar legislation was down to campaign contributions and the strong lobbying effort of sugar working with Democratic consultants and lobbyists. While several House members opposed the legislation, in the Senate only Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Skip Campbell voted no. Maddox told me during the summer of 2003 how hostile many of the Democratic Senators he had gone to see were to his position.
I myself have been guilty of holding my nose while working for Democratic candidates who received sugar money and worked to protect the sugar industry, despite my publicly stated qualms about sugar going back 20 years. After all these candidates were more closely aligned with my philosophy on other issues. However, I have no hesitation in saying the Democrats in southeast Florida have been worse on environmental issues since 1990 than local Republicans. Why? It is difficult to claim a direct quid pro-quo, but it could be the need to raise campaign cash or be “liked” in Tallahassee. Or it could be the fear that Environmental protection buts heads with labor and protecting big sugar means protecting jobs? But I would argue very strongly the amount of jobs created by eco-tourism, and a healthy ecosystem will trump any job loses in industries that pollute.
Nobody believes sugar should be prohibited to playing politically. But when the influence of one industry trumps the greater good as it has for years, Democrats have to think twice about whether this money is worth taking. It is disappointing to see so many progressives not understand the importance of protecting the Everglades and restoring Florida’s ecosystem to something bordering on sustainable; something it is not right now.
Let us hope the sugar industry is truly changing and will use the political influence they have accrued through the years especially among Democrats to push forward Everglades restoration. But excuse me for being skeptical.