Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Big Sugar's shadow descends over the Miami-Dade County Commission and passes, without taking anyone's first born son ... by gimleteye

For students of Big Sugar and its control of Florida, sub-section county government, yesterday's discussion and vote on a resolution proposed by county commissioners Daniella Levine Cava and Rebeca Sosa was a master class. The resolution from the outset seemed innocuous but doomed. Instead, it passed:

11A25 Resolution Daniella Levine Cava, Prime Sponsor, Rebeca Sosa, Co-Sponsor


Miami Dade County Commission resolution re land acquisition funding for the Everglades Agricultural Area

The backdrop was briefed in the Miami Herald: "Conservationists who want Florida to preserve more land are holding rallies across the state Saturday in advance of the special legislative session that starts Monday. The push follows a bitter fight during the regular session that included protests ... to persuade lawmakers to buy U.S. Sugar land before a deal expired. Backers of Amendment 1, overwhelmingly supported in November, say the state needs to buy land for water storage south of Lake Okeechobee and also order the South Florida Water Management District to lay out a plan for designing and building a reservoir they say is part of the original restoration plans..."

In the regular session of the Everglades, Big Sugar went to the mat deploying its proxies; Gov. Scott, GOP legislative leaders, and the governor's appointees on the South Florida Water Management District governing board. What does Big Sugar want?

Its first objective is to kill the 2008 deal set in motion by then Gov. Charlie Crist between the state and US Sugar Corporation to sell to the public more than 133,000 acres of sugar cane fields in the Everglades Agricultural Area. Bit by bit, Big Sugar whittled the deal down to a nub. That's the way of the world, when it comes to regulatory attempts to intervene in Big Sugar's hegemony over state politics. (Crist's efforts on behalf of the Everglades helped propel Marco Rubio to the US Senate in 2010, thanks to large infusions of Big Sugar money. The rest is history. Sugar has been one of Gov. Rick Scott's biggest outside sources of campaign money.)

Why was this 2008 deal so important to the Everglades and Floridians? Granted, the US Sugar property was not all in one parcel to solve the problem of "connecting" Lake Okeechobee to the remnant Everglades by creating additional and badly needed storage treatment marshes.

On the other hand, taking that much land out of sugar cane production -- at a projected cost of more than $1.2 billion -- would lay the groundwork for the next step in the campaign to save the Everglades: putting pressure on the land owners of the more centrally located lands within the Everglades Agricultural Area: ie. the Fanjul billionaires and King Ranch.

The entire politics of Florida is a synchronized machine to deliver maximum profits to Big Agriculture. Most Floridians never see the components of the machinery, because the engineering and fine-tuning all takes place in Tallahassee and Washington DC, where great gobs of money passes between the regulated and regulators: in this case, our elected representatives. (Big Sugar is an equal opportunity deployer of campaign cash -- funding Republicans mainly but never leaving out Democrats and especially, elected officials who represent minority districts.)

Big Sugar isn't the only actor. Citrus, cattle and dairy operations north of Lake Okeechobee also feature prominently. What distinguishes Big Sugar is that growing its crops require constant surveillance and monitoring of fresh water resources to irrigate its fields and to dry them down at the appropriate cycles of the crop season. It's the Goldlock's principle of porridge-making at work: "Never too hot, never too cold."

Growing sugar is less resilient to stress than raising cattle. So Big Sugar has managed to control the levers and the taxing authority and operations of the South Florida Water Management District, a multi-billion dollar agency of the state of Florida.

Nevertheless Big Ag and Big Sugar's interests in control to maximize profits are inseparable. Their aim: maximize profits by "externalizing" costs. The foremost of those costs related to fertilizer pollution in the case of sugar and excrement in the case of cattle. (The less obvious but even more damaging costs are to public health.) It has ALWAYS been Big Ag's and Big Sugar's objective to have taxpayers front the costs of its pollution to the greatest extent possible, so the Big Sugar cartel can make the most money possible. It's American Exceptionalism, defined.

In 2014, conservationists -- after decades of fighting the legislature to secure funding for acquisition of environmentally sensitive lands -- went to the polls to pass a constitutional amendment allocating a significant portion (1/3rd) of the documentary stamp tax used in all real estate transactions for the express purpose of buying land. In doing so, they took away one of Big Sugar's most potent barriers: "you don't have the money to buy our lands". Well now, if the legislature follows the law, we actually do have the money.

So that's what the struggle has been in the legislature this session and perhaps beginning on Monday, in the special session. Although health care gets the headlines, the fate of poor people is not what propels Republican legislators out of bed in the morning. What gets them out of bed is when their most powerful campaign contributors, Big Sugar, have something they want them to do.

One wouldn't imagine that a simple county resolution in support of allocating $500 million due the public through Amendment 1 would animate Big Sugar to action. But in this case, the county is Florida's most populous and politically influential, Miami-Dade. Why the resolution is important to Miami-Dade was made clear by one of the measures co-sponsors, Daniella Levine Cava, yesterday. (Rebeca Sosa, the former chair of the commission, was the other co-sponsor.) It has to do with drinking water for nearly 8 million south Floridians. Providing more water storage and cleansing marshes in the Everglades Agricultural Area is an insurance policy on the future availability of sufficient clean and affordable drinking water for urban residents. It is not just about the Everglades. "It's the drinking water, stupid."

So what happened yesterday?

Gaston Cantens, a former legislator from Miami-Dade who earned his street cred pushing through 2003 changes to Everglades water law benefiting Big Sugar -- (resulting in nearly a decade of delay and federal litigation by Friends of the Everglades and the Miccosukee Tribe in which the state ultimately lost) -- is now the chief government operative for the Fanjuls. He and lobbyists on Big Sugar's payroll are everywhere in Tallahassee. They don't come down to Miami-Dade often because there's nothing much for them to do unless it involves meddling they deem in their interests, which they did yesterday.

Their proxies on the county commission were led by Pepe Diaz and Juan Zapata. Pepe Diaz' "flood concerns" dovetails exactly with Big Sugar's objectives. Listening to Diaz on the Everglades is like attending a two-hour piano concert in which only two notes are ever played: "me" and "flood concerns", over and over and over again. Juan Zapata is a relative newbie to Big Sugar's complicit.

At any rate, through the course of the forty minute debate on the resolution, both Diaz and Zapata read from carefully rehearsed scripts, written by Big Sugar lobbyists. In addition to Diaz' flood concerns, there was repeated mention of Big Sugar's veiled threat: that if the county commission approved a resolution to use Amendment 1 moneys to buy Big Sugar lands like those being advocated by conservationists, then there would be retribution against Miami-Dade County's "legislative priorities" in Tallahassee. This threat was voiced several times in several styles. That was the shadow descending.

I will give Pepe Diaz credit for dancing steps of one of Big Sugar's main worries: water quality. You see, Everglades restoration depends on getting the water from the cesspit of Lake Okeechobee very clean. If it is not clean to federal standards for the Everglades, the River of Grass is doomed. Big Sugar won't say so, but the game it is playing is "running out the clock" just like the Miami Heat when they can protect their lead.

Juan Zapata made an argument I'd never heard before, and it gets high marks for creativity. After Daniella Levine Cava emphasized that the future president of the Florida Senate, likely to be Joe Negron, supports the allocation of $500 million for land acquisition (he hasn't said where) to use lands to clean up frightful water pollution in Martin and Palm Beach counties, Zapata asked his commissioners to consider how business really gets done in Tallahassee: "as soon as the Senate signals it wants something, the House immediately puts a stop to it." What an interesting analysis why a single-party state government (Democrats are powerless, thanks to so called fair redistricting) should be red-flagged by voters.

Left unsaid by Zapata: how the gridlock in Tallahassee is exactly the result of Big Ag's vital interest in paralysis of regulatory functions of government.

Finally, Diaz and Zapata urged their colleagues on the dais to water-down the resolution sponsored by Levine Cava and Sosa. There was much discussion how the measure, as worded, could waste the time of lobbyists and run counter to the real "priorities" established early in the year by the county commission. Let's take out a few words here and there, Zapata and Diaz both said. Credit to Levine Cava: she carefully led the county attorney to explain that a resolution "urging" the legislature to act wouldn't change anything in the order of county priorities.

In the end, the measure passed 7 - 5. Among the notables voting against the measure, Chairman Jean Monestine.

So now, Florida's biggest county is on record supporting the legislature and Gov. Rick Scott acting on Senator Negron's request to allocate $500 million to purchase of environmentally sensitive lands -- holding a slimmest glimmer of hope that some of the US Sugar option to purchase can be exercised by the state (notwithstanding the horrendous performance of the governing board of the district, opposing the measure) before next October when the chance will disappear forever.

So in conclusion: Big Sugar's shadow descended on the Miami Dade County Commission yesterday without taking anyone's first born son. And for that, in the immortal words of Tosh.O, we are grateful.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if Zapata or Diaz has ever been to Casa De Campo on the Fanjul's private jet?

Geniusofdespair said...

Jean Monestime why did you vote with the losers? Here is a tip: If you are voting with Pepe Diaz you are probably voting wrong.

Anonymous said...

Zapata claims to like the environment but does not show it in any of his votes. He votes from anger and not logic. He has been a disappointment. In fact the land buy would help flooding in Florida by offering water storage.

ShowMe, MO said...

Passing this was a milestone. Looks like Jean joined The Forces Of Darkness and
Souto is just in the dark, as usual.

Anonymous said...

Jean Monestine is proving and going to further prove to show his true colors. I predicted when he was elected to be an opportunist. DO NOT LET HIS CUTE SMILE FOOL YOU> He cut deals with some of the BCC's before he was declared chair. Just my opinion. Watch the money!

Anonymous said...

Jean Monestine has been a disappointment for a long time. He voted for the anti-Everglades sugar interests? Shouldn't he be representing M-D residents? And why does Monestine meddle in the Little River and Lemon City neighborhoods outside his district? Doesn't he have enough problems in N. Miami?

Anonymous said...

I feel a cracking sound in the iceberg that has been the Miami-Dade's anti-environmental position for many decades. Despite the no votes by Diaz, Monestime, Bovo, Souto and Zapata, the world is changing. Even the staunchest agents of special interests on the commission know that their constituents don't want to see them harming the Everglades. This generation has visited the Everglades and studied it in school. They understand the need to preserve nature. Don't think so? Two of the Commissioners who voted against the Everglades complained that if they voted against the resolution they would be labeled as anti-Everglades. In the past, anti-environmental commissioners didn't care how they were perceived. Now even the worst are aware their votes on the environment carry a special weight and they'll need the fresh water of the Everglades, especially as the salt water pushes inland. As they say, Winter is Coming, especially in Miami.

Malagodi said...

Thank you, EOM.

Anonymous said...

Now that Miami Dade has urged the Florida Legislature to set aside the half billion how are we going to get the Legislature to actually do the setting aside?

Anonymous said...

Right, these resolutions are feel good legislation but have no impact on the state representatives.

Anonymous said...

Resolutions do indeed have an impact which is why the losing 5 commissioners fought so hard to kill the resolution.

cyndi said...

yay. a great step. grateful.

Anonymous said...

It was almost likegiving birth... having attended the meeting myself, I couldn't be happier Cava stuck to her guns. Bravo!

Zapata is anti Everglades, perIod. He pretends to be doing good for the community & has a few developments coming up that will require UDB expansion. The lat thing he wants is to add more attention to protecting the Everglades, let alone moving restoration forward.

Diaz is a lost cause.

Monestime was a huge disappointment.

Bravo for Comm. Heyman for defending the resolution and even saying that she wouldn't mind adding stronger language.

Barreiro saying he supports the resolution was a surprise, a good surprise. He's coming around on Everglades and other environmentAL issues.

There is a lot of work ahead, but having a resolution from the largest county in the state is good. Especially when you add resolutions from all other counties in the Everglades watershed

Anonymous said...

EOM hits another home run. Thanks to Daniella for pushing this through. We are grateful.

Anonymous said...

Congrats to Daniela Cava.

Anonymous said...

Commissioner Daniella deserves a Profile in Courage award for sponsoring that resolution and fighting for it.

Jean Monestime is showing his republican stripes. He's a DINO - Democrat In Name Only. What a disappointment! I hope Hillary stays far away from that Charlatan Monestime.