Friday, December 06, 2019

My latest column in Biscayne Times. By Geniusofdespair

http://www.biscaynetimes.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3393:money-money-money-&catid=86:eye-on-miami
Money, Money, Money PDFPrintE-mail
Written By Nancy Lee, BT Contributor   
DECEMBER 2019

NEXT YEAR, LOBBYISTS’ STRANGLEHOLD ON OUR COUNTY COMMISSION COULD COME TO AN END

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Lobbyist Ron Book’s businesses and family have given about $8000 to Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert. Courtesy of Floridapolitics.com
o term limits curb lobbyist influence? We’ll soon find out. This stinking system of influence-peddling on the one hand and raising money for candidates on the other is rotten. Lobbyists even write scripts for the dumber county commissioners like Pepe Diaz.
Term limits are a teeny, tiny step in the right direction, because sitting commissioners could never lose an election under the old system -- the lobbyists just were too efficient at raising money for them.
In Miami-Dade County, citizens changed the charter, voting in term limits for commissioners. It passed years ago. Regrettably, it wasn’t retroactive. Political wonks have been patiently waiting for eight years to pass. Some county commissioners have been in office forever; Dennis Moss has been there since 1993.
I say halleluiah for term limits. We’re seeing the end of long-held county fiefdoms, and it feels so good. Five county commissioners from odd-numbered districts will officially be out of office, leaving open seats for the elections in August 2020.
Five open seats to vote on. Damn, I’m ecstatic.
Audrey Edmonson gave a truly moronic quote to the Miami Herald about being kicked to the curb after 14 years on the county commission. The quote infuriated me. It’s why I’m writing about this subject. “If you don’t have an experienced commission,” she said, “you won’t be able to see through what the lobbyists are telling you.”
Audrey: “You needed 14 years of experience to figure out when you were being conned?”
• • •
Who will admit they like lobbyists? Maybe their children and the spouse who is accustomed to the finer things. Politicians will say they’re a necessary evil, but they actually like most of them.
In Miami Beach, lobbyists disclose their fees, which comes in handy. Some get flat fees, such as $12,500 for Alexander Heckler to represent Terra Group. Alexander Tachmes gets $650 per hour to represent Aiyara LLC, a restaurant company. Of course, they all have lots and lots of clients, so they are making “finer things” kind of bucks. Ron Book and his two-person staff made almost $5 million in 2013, according to Sunshine State News, and his firm had 81 clients that year.
Unfortunately, even the very best of the county commissioners will see a lobbyist ten times faster than they’ll see you. Your $100 is chump change next to a lobbyist who can raise $10,000 for that commissioner.
Ron Book’s businesses and family have given about $8000 to Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert, who is running for the commission from District 1 next year. Of course, that doesn’t include what Book raised from others, and it’s still early.
I would say, by the obscene $366,685 that Gilbert has raised so far, he should win. He appears to be the choice of the mega donors. Except… Sybrina Denise Fulton, mother of murdered Trayvon Martin (I call it the Skittles murder), is running against him. Hillary Clinton and Cory Booker have endorsed Fulton, who has hardly raised any money ($41,467), but she does have the community behind her. Plus, voters in that part of the county might not care so much about ads, and Gilbert must tread lightly with negative ads against the much-loved Fulton.
I find City of Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon’s run for county commissioner particularly awful. He comes from a lobbyist family. With his connections, he should win Edmonson’s District 3. He’s already raised $97,325. Almost every donation was $1000, from about 100 people. Those contributors will get the royal treatment, while his constituents will have no clout.
When City of Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton was first elected, he wouldn’t even see lobbyists. When they slithered in, he’d instruct them to send their boss. That didn’t last long.
More awful than lobbyists raising money for candidates, though, are lobbyists put into positions of power. According to ProPublica, President Trump has had 281 lobbyists in his administration. Trump’s swamp contains “one lobbyist for every 14 political appointments.” Worse, he puts them in positions overseeing industries where they worked on the dark side.
According to Open Secrets, $3.46 billion was spent on lobbyists in 2018. Woof! That would go a long way toward subsidizing unaffordable prescriptions.
I got in touch with Sylvia Farina, who for 20 years was a chief of staff to three Miami-Dade County commissioners. Sylvia ended her career working for Katy Sorenson. I sent her Audrey Edmonson’s stupid quote. Sylvia said, “If you hire experienced people for your staff, then lobbyist issues will be fine.”
Another former chief of staff inspired me with hope: “If new commissioners hire professional staff to give them objective, independent advice, this powerful local governing board could become the most respected legislative body in Florida.”
Wow! If we start to respect commissioners, that would put most of us lunatic Miami-Dade writers out of business.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

I am writing again. By Geniusofdespair

I will have a column in Biscayne Times. Also, our Facebook group (press the link on the right) is still alive.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Toxic waters linked to cancer and Alzheimer's dusted by Big Sugar in Florida mid-term elections ... by Alan Farago

On Twitter, former Reagan official Bruce Bartlett summed up the GOP response to climate change. He wrote: "There is no conceivable response to climate change that doesn't involve harm to the US economy. Therefore, we will do nothing until we all die."

That is, in fact, the GOP prescription that entraps taxpayers, citizens and voters. It is codified through hundreds of millions of political campaign contributions -- funded lies -- by fossil fuel producers and supply chains, their dark money pools, and stand-in trade associations like the US Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers. "We will do nothing until we all die."

The same could be said of the microcosm that is sending Florida outstanding waters into a death spiral of toxic algae blooms and health hazards linked to cancer and Alzheimer's: the immobile, intractable profit imperatives of Big Sugar. In this case, we will do nothing until every last inch of Florida's waters are stripped of life to benefit the biggest recipients of corporate welfare in the US farm policy: Florida's few sugarcane billionaires. Sugar's defenders include the Associated Industries, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and the state's big electric utilities.

I can hear the howls of protest from Big Sugar shills, but it is a sad fact: not a single policy devised through political compromises at the time -- not the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, not Mod Waters, not the Tamiami Trail bridges, not underground injection wells, not Central Everglades planning, and certainly NOT the planned Everglades reservoir -- changes this equation: that sugar gets the water it wants, when it wants the water and wherever it wants it at whatever time of year and the rest of us get its toxic waste.

The one thing that sugar refuses to do: sell enough land for storage and treatment marshes -- even at taxpayer expense! -- to clean up its fouled waters and the legacy pollution it caused by using Lake Okeechobee as its cesspool. Big Sugar's attitude: "we will do nothing until we all die."

Just like the fossil fuel industries, Big Sugar buttresses its claims by hiring the best lawyers, consultants, engineers, scientists, and politicians that money can buy. Big Tobacco figured it out, until a cascade of multi-billion dollar judgments forced the industry to pay for the cancer it caused.

Will Big Sugar ever be held similarly accountable? Not by Republicans, for whom prohibiting "external costs" of pollution should be a core conservative principle. Not by Republicans, for whom corporate welfare embedded in the Farm Bill they support is a damning indictment. (Senator Marco Rubio, in the 2016 presidential primary, called support of the sugar subsidy program a matter of "national security". Excess sugar consumption, of course, being the leading cost component in $1T annual health care emergencies in the United States.)

Environmentalists don't like to talk about these matters in such frank terms. Instead, they soldier on, through the art of the possible. In 2016 they signed off on a disastrous piece of legislation that began as an effort by then Senate President Joe Negron, a Republican, to fix the horrendous pollution of the state's east coast rivers and bays during the extreme rainfall winter of 2015/2016. Big Sugar turned his bill into their Trojan Horse, by inserting a provision into the law -- passed by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott -- that prohibits eminent domain in the Everglades Agricultural Area. What they did was like the fossil fuel industry saying: we will agree to fix climate change so long as it does not involve impacting the consumer preference for gas, oil and coal.

At the time, Negron went to his Democratic colleagues, looking for help. He found only one in the state senate, Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Harvard educated attorney from Miami. Big Sugar has taken great pains to lock up Florida Democrats, shunting just enough money to state legislators and their political committees to make them appear competitive with the GOP. And if scandal should strike, as it did to former state senator Jeff Clemens -- the Democrat who blocked efforts to add storage and treatment lands to the EAA Reservoir legislative package -- there is always a cozy job waiting at the other end, as it has for Clemens with Florida Crystals, the billion dollar empire of the Fanjul family that maintains US Senator Marco Rubio, its chief ally in Congress.

Big Sugar sees the world just like Bruce Bartlett observed of Republicans and climate change: there is no conceivable response to fixing Florida's toxic water crises that does not involve harming its profits. "We will do nothing until we all die."

In Florida's case, doing nothing still involves the expenditure or waste of tens of billions of dollars. But don't count on the Fanjuls or descendants of Charles Stuart Mott and principal shareholders of US Sugar Corporation to do nothing. They are well along in their plans for power plants, inland ports, and new cities and suburbs in former Everglades wetlands. "An unstoppable force!" is how Bush campaign chairman and former developer Al Hoffman crowed to the Washington Post more than 15 years ago.

Unstoppable, because both Republicans and Democrats agree to do nothing or "something" so long as the money flows and the appearance of progress quells public discontent.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Matt Caldwell: don't let the door hit you on the way out ... by Ray Judah

Eye On Miami has written extensively on Ray Judah, a former county commissioner from Lee County who had served his community for 24 years when his 2012 reelection campaign was up-ended by a $1MM dark money hit job coordinated by a fellow Republican state legislator, Matt Caldwell.

Judah had the courage -- virtually alone among Republican electeds in Florida -- to challenge Big Sugar's dominance of water management practices and policies. The net result of successive legislatures and governors, mostly under Republican leadership, materialized as toxic algae blooms harmful to public health, to the environment, and devastating to coastal economies that depend on clean water.

For his courage, Judah was targeted by Big Sugar. (Our archive on Ray Judah can be accessed by clicking, here.)

For his part, Caldwell was rewarded. He assumed a leadership position in the legislature as the de facto majority whip for Big Sugar. Caldwell defended the outrageous extension of no-bid leases to Big Sugar of massive acreage already in public ownership, that is needed for additional storage and treatment development to prevent the trashing of rivers and estuaries and the Everglades. He opposed the involvement of the federal government in setting pollution standards for phosphorous (ie. nutrient runoff). In 2016, while his community buckled under the damage from pollution, he did Big Sugar's business by opposing then Senate President Joe Negron's effort to add 40,000 acres of marshes to absorb the impact of Big Sugar's toxic waste.

As a reliable capo, Caldwell was put in line by Big Sugar to succeed Adam Putnam as state agriculture commission, a state wide position that would have put Caldwell on the path to higher visibility when Putnam, as Sugar's political maneuvering expected, vaulted to governor when Rick Scott snapped up a seat in the US Senate.

Both Putnam and Caldwell were shot down by Florida voters, who had enough of their iron-clad support for polluters against the interests of taxpayers and voters. Ray Judah wrote the following assessment:

After eight years of sponsoring legislation designed to undermine water resource regulations, Representative Matt Caldwell’s trail of stench ended in his recent loss to Nikki Fried for Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Never has one elected official so blatantly sold out his community and left a legacy of destruction of our precious and fragile water resources.

Caldwell hid behind a veil of Republican conservatism while rising to power in the Florida Legislature with lavish support from notable industries, including petroleum, pharmaceutical, gaming, tobacco, and Big Sugar. Caldwell worked tirelessly to shift the cost of restoring our rivers and coastal estuaries from those responsible for polluting our waterways to the public taxpayers. Caldwell achieved favored status with Big Sugar by sponsoring legislation that led up to the 2018 water crises debacle.

In the 2013 legislative session, Caldwell sponsored HB 7065 to amend the 1994 Everglades Forever Act, under the guise of increasing the sugar industry’s funding commitment to Everglades restoration, when in fact, his proposed amendment was a smoke screen to ensure that the sugar industry limited their long term obligation of funding Everglades restoration. HB 7065 provided for the extension of the so-called privilege tax of $25 per acre that the sugar industry pays to continue their discharge of polluted runoff to the Everglades, rivers and coastal estuaries. This amounts to approximately $11 million per year in comparison to the billions required by the public taxpayers to restore the Florida Everglades. Caldwell's amended language suppressed the "1996 Polluters Pay" Constitutional Amendment that required those primarily responsible for the pollution in the Everglades Agricultural and Protection Areas to clean up their pollution.

In the 2015 Legislative session, Caldwell, in violation of the public trust, supported re-directing Amendment 1 funds, intended to protect the public's water resources and restore the Everglades, to balance the state budget.

In the 2016 State legislative session, Caldwell sponsored a 'Water Policy Bill" that undermines water resource protection from Appalachicola Bay to the Florida Keys. The bill greatly impedes efforts to cost effectively prevent water pollution at its source. The bill eliminated the regulatory permitting process that included performance standards for potential pollutant loading of lakes, rivers, streams and coastal estuaries. It eliminated a January 2015 deadline, which the state didn’t meet, for compliance with nutrient levels without creating a new deadline, thereby delaying cleanup of Lake Okeechobee.

Coastal communities on the west and east coast of south Florida have suffered tremendous economic and environmental devastation due to harmful algae blooms from land based nutrient runoff. The toxic brew of fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides and fungicides from the sugar cane fields around Lake Okeechobee have poisoned downstream rivers and coastal estuaries with toxic blue-green algae and red tide.

Caldwell constantly attempted to redirect government policy away from the polluters to further his own political ambitions. Inexplicably, a good number of local business men and women heavily supported his political aspirations despite devastation to our coastal resources and adverse impact to our tourism and real estate based economy. Fortunately, enough voters from the Florida panhandle to the Florida Keys recognized it was time to vote for clean water candidates and hold Caldwell accountable for his abdication of responsibility to represent the public interest.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Rick Scott, Adam Putnam, and Matt Caldwell: Part 2, Turbulent Waters For Florida's Toxic Trio ... by Alan Farago

Everglades Agricultural Area, algae filled drainage ditch
Before Florida's midterm election, the media filled with news reports and visual imagery, spanning network news to the Daily Show, of rampant red tides and toxic algae coating all of Florida's coasts.

After the election? A few pundits noted the impacts on political careers well-grounded in defending polluters.

Big Sugar's best laid plans for the Republican hierarchy came a cropper.

For the first time in Florida political history, Sugar's campaign contributions to state-wide candidates became a threshold issue for candidates and for voters who get it: Florida's water crises is the direct result of dark political money from billionaires turning our waters and Everglades into sacrifice zones for their profits. 

Credit is due to Bullsugar.org whose voter guides highlighted polluted campaign contributions from billionaires who have commandeered the state legislature.

Adam Putnam, whose political career benefited from family wealth derived from a water district funded farm acquisition -- and who has been a strong defender of Big Sugar -- was defeated by Ron DeSantis who made opposition to Big Sugar's cost shifting to taxpayers a central plank in his platform. 

Florida Democrats, again, proved susceptible to Big Sugar money and influence. Where and when they could have planted a flag on the outrageous exchange of Florida waters for corporate welfare, they largely declined or tip-toed through a perceived mine field. cf. Bill Nelson.

Big Sugar, you see, has a different way of forcing its echo chamber into Democratic party ranks. Chris King, Andrew Gillum's running mate, is a notable exception.

Matt Caldwell, who rose to prominence by orchestrating the upset 2012 defeat of Ray Judah -- a Republican commissioner in Lee County who eloquently supported more storage and treatment acreage in the EAA -- failed in his quest to step up the ladder to Agriculture Commissioner. He called Bullsugar, a "hate group", and attacked the group in ads but voters knew better. Look for Caldwell to find a sweet place, like former Democratic senator Jeff Clemens, on the Big Sugar payroll.

"Red Tide" Rick Scott slipped into the US Senate on a razor thin margin, bolstered by a personal investment of tens of millions. A sharper and focused Bill Nelson could have preserved his Senate seat if he had allied himself clearly and strongly against Big Sugar and for Florida's waterways, threatened tourism industries, and the Everglades.

While the punditry has dragged its feet on linking Florida's election outcomes to the toxic influence of Big Sugar, a few raised eyebrows indicate the industry is endlessly resourceful in preserving its prerogatives. It moved with lightning speed after the election, a show of political, legislative, and legal force.

A day after the election on November 7th, the very same day Jeff Sessions resigned as US Attorney General, Sessions signed an extraordinary memorandum providing new guidance to DOJ on federal consent decrees. Its key point: avoid them. Leave the messy business of fixing what is wrong to the states. A day later, the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District -- all appointees of Gov. Rick Scott -- voted to vacate the consent decree that governed relations between the state, the federal government and Big Sugar polluters for a quarter century. If you think the timing was coincidental, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

The District timing on its intent to rip up the consent decree was a show of Big Sugar force. It had been supported by very expensive lobbying and lawyering for at least a couple of years. The votes from the 2018 midterm elections hadn't been counted, but Big Sugar really didn't care. 

Do you?


(originally published August 2, 2018)
In the winter of 2016, polluted water from Lake Okeechobee turned from brown to guacamole green, thick with toxic algae carrying cyanobacteria to downstream communities, putting people and businesses in harm's way. In the summer of 2018, it is happening again. Right before midterm elections.

Gov. Rick Scott. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. State Representative Matt Caldwell. All are seeking to move up the political ladder in November on the Republican side of the slate. Rick Scott is aiming to unseat Bill Nelson, the Democrat incumbent, in the US Senate. Adam Putnam is running to be Florida's next governor. Matt Caldwell, to take Putnam's chair in the state agriculture hierarchy. The ladder is real, and it is constructed carefully by the state's shadow government: Big Sugar.

There are a handful of Big Sugar players, and a much larger circle of influence peddlers, but there are two billionaire families who are the mainstay of the Big Sugar cartel; the descendants of Charles Stuart Mott who own US Sugar Corporation and the Fanjul family, owners of Florida Crystals and a vertically integrated, transnational sugar empire.

Both the Mott descendants and the Fanjuls spend heavily to make rules and regulations work their way while claiming a public benefit: "farming for families to put the food on your table". They never say that sugar is not a food but a substance more addictive than cocaine when consumed in excess. But that is another story.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Just when you thought you’d heard it all ... by gimleteye