Wednesday, March 16, 2016

For Big Sugar, a very bad GOP primary outcome in Florida ... by gimleteye

All the money growing sugarcane, all the political money spread like fertilizer across the electoral landscape, all the public relations and message machinery, all aims to one result: predictability.

To achieve maximum profitability Big Sugar needs to control outcomes: — first in elections, then in the legislature, Congress, and the White House, then in environmental agencies controlled by politics — and finally, predictable rainfall on 450,000 acres of the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee.

Remarkably, Big Sugar had two native sons who failed to advance through the GOP presidential primary. Jeb Bush was the putative insider's choice. He had earned Big Sugar’s confidence while governor, but according to a source, Jeb made an early decision to stand arm's length from Big Sugar. With his campaign finally on fumes, Jeb uttered the unmentionable: that he would not support the continued sugar subsidy in the Farm Bill. Marco Rubio, on the other hand, was unequivocally supportive of the corporate welfare benefiting his top contributors. Big Sugar -- through Fanjul corporate interests -- went "all in" with Marquito. Last night, when Donald Trump smashed Rubio in the state's GOP primary, Big Sugar found itself in an extraordinary position; both of the GOP presidential candidates it supported failed to carry Florida.

There is more bad news for Big Sugar. For the first time civic opposition on the west coast of Florida and east coast — afflicted by pollution spewing from Lake Okeechobee — linked through social media. Rubio's primary defeat can be attributed, in part, to an uprising against the GOP establishment and, particularly, against Big Sugar. Although Big Sugar constantly meddles in state and local county politics, a loss is a loss. For one of its own -- Marco Rubio -- to flame out so spectacularly at the top of the political pyramid introduces uncertainty to an industry that has never faltered in pressing its influence through local county business groups, “respected” trade associations like the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida.

In this primary season, not even rainfall cooperated. Five times rain averages fell in Lake Okeechobee watersheds during January. Republican voters in Florida were outraged that only Big Sugar in the Everglades Agricultural Area remained untouched by heavy flooding and polluted runoff scouring the two main estuaries used to dump excess water: the Caloosahatchee, spreading foul water down the southwest and heavily Republican coast of Florida and to the east, through the St. Lucie, also coating Republican voters in toxic water.

Groups like, have been reaching across the middle of the state, generating hundreds of thousands of viewers and voters, if not drowning out Big Sugar's influence then at least pressing the case that they would no longer tolerate the state of Florida using individual property and natural resources as sacrifice zones. In recent days, Big Sugar launched a multi-pronged counterattack.

First, water managers agreed to lessen damaging outflows from Lake Okeechobee. Big Sugar and its allies in state environmental agencies are betting against the resumption of record rainfall, expecting people will go back to being 'sheeple'. That is how it always worked for Big Sugar in the past.

Second, Big Sugar unleashed a barrage of publicity reinforcing a theme it has pressed through local councils and state government: that it is not the culprit for Lake O pollution: taxpayers with bad septic systems are. Dairy farms north of Lake Okeechobee are. Big Sugar, at the same time, trumpets how they are just hard-working farmers discouraged by misinformed environmental extremists.

In the Naples Daily News, "U.S. Sugar's Judy Sanchez said the Sierra Club held a public roundtable discussion last week where it falsely blamed her company for pollution in Lake Okeechobee. "We were flabbergasted when we saw they were making claims that any farmers were pumping water into Lake Okeechobee," Sanchez said. "We don't have the ability to pump water into the lake. Only the government has that ability.”

It sounds like a reasonable point except that in anon-going Clean Water Act litigation, a federal judge already decided against US Sugar and the sugar industry for the very practices it claims to have no part in. Moreover, focusing on the practice of emptying flooded sugar fields into Lake Okeechobee (ie. "back pumping") is a grand form of misdirection. What citizens want is what science and experts state is necessary to solve the Lake Okeechobee pollution once and for all: the public acquisition of Big Sugar lands adequate to the purpose of cleansing marshes. In other words, put people -- not billionaire recipients of corporate welfare like the Fanjuls (Flo Sun and Florida Crystals) and the Mott family (US Sugar Corporation), first.

Big Sugar attacks the inaccuracy of its critics in comparison to data it claims to show what a great job the industry has done of cleaning up its pollution. Politicians it supports — like Gov. Rick Scott and Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam, Senate President Joe Negron and Representative Matt Caldwell — all toe Big Sugar's line. Newspapers and TV news reports pick up the industry's talking points, neatly wrapped in bows and gift baskets. For example, US Sugar Corporation is now pushing out press statements and presented its “facts” in carefully orchestrated public meetings: it does not “backpump” its filthy runoff into Lake Okeechobee. What it doesn't say: the corporation remains an active defendant and intervenor in federal court Clean Water Act litigation.

In other words, the same obstructionism the industry has always shown remains at the core of its strategy: marginalize critics, shift costs to taxpayers, and extract maximum profit. Big Sugar still dominates the Florida legislature and local county commissions. Big Sugar's gets what it wants, when it wants, but yesterday's primary result showed a crack in the armor.

2016 may go down as the year predictability vanished for an industry that counts on controlling all political outcomes in Florida. Still, there is plenty of money to spend and no shortage of outstretched hands.

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