In Florida, Sugar and Everglades Are Key Issues For GOP Candidates

AP Photo / Lynne Sladky

During the most recent debate among GOP candidates, discussion turned to an issue that surely won’t be discussed outside Florida, yet it is a significant one nonetheless: the Florida Everglades, an area of the crucial swing-state that former Republican governors in Florida fought hard to work to restore and spent billions doing so.

On Twitter, debate watchers were taken aback by the questions about the Everglades and sugar production. Both issues are connected and are intertwined with Florida politics. Sugarcane is a major Florida crop and an agricultural policy known as the Sugar Program—a web of tariffs, quotas, and price supports—prop up the sugar producers.

Sugarcane producers are one of the largest contributors in Florida politics. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have taken tens of thousands from the Florida Crystals company; U.S. Sugar Corp. poured nearly $3 million into the gubernatorial race in 2010. And sugar companies have sprinkled money widely around Democratic and Republican national campaign committees and spent more than $400,000 on lobbying in 2011.

Sugar producers were the top contributors to former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who resigned after a scandal over sexually explicit messages he sent to young House pages. Yet, Foley was still able to secure a financial commitment from Congress toward Everglade restoration. That’s because efforts to restore the Everglades have reached a well-established bipartisan level and become nearly sacrosanct.

Decades of drainage to expand agriculture and development led to a series of revelations in the 1980s that only invasive species, high levels of mercury, and a rapid increase of algae in the rivers and lakes were left of the Everglades.

Some of the land had been drained to make room for farmland; much of the best land for farming sugarcane is near the Everglades, and the phosphorus runoff from the sugar farms causes tremendous damage to the fragile ecosystem. Sugar companies have been farming in the area since 1931 and fought tooth and nail against any regulation intended to prevent their operations from tainting the Everglades. Indeed, rivers have completely changed colors, running bright green water, which affects industries dependent on fishing and hunting in the area.

Florida Crystals, for example, heavily lobbies the Environmental Protection Agency on regulating this phosphorus runoff. Because of that big money and lobbying by sugar producers, as the New York Times has reported, any attempt to curtail pollution has faltered because “Big Sugar is in the driving seat.”

Most of the work by the federal government on restoration has occurred over the past two decades. In the 1990s, vice-president Al Gore spoke on a near-weekly basis with President Bill Clinton about work on restoring the Everglades, according to the 2007 book The Swamp, by Michael Grunwald. Gore would go on dueling with Republican Sens. Richard Lugar (Ind.) and Bob Dole (Kan.) over restoration plans and, at times, Gore found himself to the right of the Congressional Republican proposals.

Around the same time Foley complained that ads against him with drowning deer made him look like a “Bambi Killer,” so he begged then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich for help. Gingrich usually didn’t speak on the floor in speeches, but made an exception to support Republican plans to restore the Everglades. “Republicans could be against over-regulation but could still be for the Everglades,” Gingrich said at the time.

Legislation Foley pushed in Feb. 1996 to put $210 million towards Everglades restoration would pass with Gingrich’s support. Gingrich would travel to Florida afterwards, touting that he helped as Speaker to push through money for preserving the Everglades.

President Clinton signed an $8 billion rescue plan for the Everglades a few years later in 2000, called the Water Resources Development Act. During former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s tenure, he spent $100-$200 million annually on restoring the Everglades, and Gov. Charlie Crist would push for even more aggressive work on moving U.S. Sugar out of the region. Even though former President George W. Bush sought to expand drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he agreed to spend $235 million to prevent drilling near the Everglades—a move that angered oil interests while pro-environment groups cheered the Bush administration.

An economic study [PDF] on repairing the Everglades by Mather Economics found for every dollar invested in restoring the Everglades, $4.04 will be generated in economic benefits. Projections indicate that there will be an incremental impact on employment of about 442,644 additional jobs over 50 years. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also estimates there will be 22,966 new short to mid-term jobs created as a result of actual restoration projects.

So earlier this year, it may explain why, after years of work, Floridians were upset when Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said while campaigning for the GOP presidential nomination that she would possibly allow drilling for oil in the Everglades. Fellow Tea Partier Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) wrote Bachmann a letter to tell her that the Everglades were “off limits.” When former Sen. Fred Thompson (R) floated the same idea during his 2008 run, Mitt Romney said touching the Everglades should be “off the table.”

And then on Monday, Rick Santorum said he’d be in favor of drilling around Florida. That idea is certainly unpopular in the Sunshine State for fears of a spill ruining the beaches and destroying their tourism industry. Yet, it’s also opposed for worry that the spill would harm the Everglades as they have spent decades trying to restore the area.

Gingrich recently said he’d be in favor of offshore drilling, and would use that money in conservation projects. “I’d want to have part of that energy revenue go to fully funding Everglades restoration,” he said. Ron Paul also said at the most recent debate that he’d oppose drilling in the Everglades; Romney refrained from taking a hard stance.

After the Monday debate, Navin Nayak of the League of Conservation Voters told the AP, “There’s no doubt that this kind of slate of presidential candidates is one of the most regressive and most closely tied to polluters that we’ve seen at least in decades.”

The GOP-controlled Florida legislature has established a bipartisan Everglades Caucus, and the state’s governor recently presented his latest restoration plan. With even Tea Partiers like Scott and West fighting against touching the Everglades, it shows it’s an issue that doesn’t fall along partisan lines, and one where Republicans candidates seem to be aligned with environmentalists in a crucial primary state.

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