Where's the logic in no-bid Glades lease?
Posted - Saturday, January 26, 2013 11:00 AM EST
The Florida Cabinet kowtowed to Big Sugar Wednesday over strong objections from environmental watchdogs.
By unanimous vote, the Cabinet -- Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater -- agreed to extend leases for 30 years on 13,000 acres of state-owned land now used by Florida Crystals and A. Duda and Sons to grow sugar cane.
This comes two years after the state agreed to buy up thousands of acres of heavily farmed sugar land in order to retire that source of phosphorus runoff now considered poisonous to a healthy Glades.
Restoring the Everglades is considered critical to the health of Florida Bay, Keys fisheries and the underground aquifers near Florida City that are the chief source of Keys drinking water.
Florida Crystals, along with U.S. Sugar, A. Duda and Sons and others, dominates Florida's sugar industry. The Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida in Belle Glade, and Florida Crystals Corp. in West Palm Beach, jointly own American Sugar Refining.
They market products under the Domino Foods name and recently signed a cooperative agreement with Chinese and Swiss companies to market a sugar-stevia sweetener to meet global demand for a low-calorie alternative.
Sugar subsidies under a 2002 federal farm bill artificially prop up the price of sugar in the United States. Beet farmers also qualify, so it's not just Florida cane growers benefiting from taxpayer largesse and price protection.
There's big money in those cane fields and it certainly showed in the Cabinet meeting, where representatives from Florida Audubon and the Florida Wildlife Federation questioned why the state would extend leases for 30 years at the same time the state and feds are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in Everglades restoration efforts.
Eric Draper, Audubon's executive director, told Cabinet that as landlord, Florida should insist tenants maximize efforts to improve agricultural practices and significantly reduce adverse impact on the land. His pleas went unheeded.
The South Florida Water Management District supported the 30-year lease extension. This comes after the district agreed in 2010 to pay U.S. Sugar $197 million for 26,800 acres needed as part of a much larger Everglades Restoration effort.
The U.S. Sugar deal included an option to purchase another 72,500 acres with a seven-year lease that could be extended. Price tag to retire that agricultural land now used for sugar cane production: $197 million.
So why the sweetheart leases on state land when taxpayers are already footing the bill to buy up land (and enrich cane growers) needed to restore South Florida's liquid heart, the Everglades?