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Lawmakers sell Glades down river

May 7, 1998

To cap off the most worthless legislative session in recent memory, Florida lawmakers passed two last-minute bills that could sabotage Everglades restoration.

They rammed one through under the phony banner of property rights, but it's not your property or your rights they care about. It's Big Sugar's.

The new law substantially jacks up the cost of the Everglades project by requiring land purchases to be negotiated under the state's condemnation law, instead of the U.S. government's. That lets large landowners stiff taxpayers for attorney fees, consultants and witness expenses.

Many millions of dollars will be added to the price of land needed to reconstruct South Florida's freshwater drainage system. The chief beneficiary of this latest gouging would be Flo-Sun, the sugar conglomerate with vast holdings near Lake Okeechobee.

A relatively small chunk of cane acreage is essential to the Everglades puzzle, which is why water managers want to purchase it. Thanks to lawmakers, Flo-Sun now stands to make an even fatter-than-usual killing.

The rip-off has a perversely splendid irony. Big Sugar spent decades using the Everglades as its toilet, and receiving U.S. subsidies all the while. Now that it's time to help clean up the mess, the sugar barons don't want to play by Uncle Sam's rules.

Oh, they're happy to take federal bucks for their property, but they don't want the feds to limit how much.

So: First we pay the sugar tycoons while they're polluting our water supply. Then we pay them even more for selling us back what they screwed up in the first place. And who says welfare is dead?

The Flo-Sun bill is such egregious larceny that it has been attacked by two local congressmen, Democrat Peter Deutsch and Republican E. Clay Shaw, who both fear it will drive the cost of Everglades restoration so high as to cripple it.

The last hope lies with Gov. Lawton Chiles, who with a stroke of the pen should snuff the Flo-Sun giveaway, along with another disastrous bill pushed by U.S. Sugar and adopted in the Legislature's final craven moments.

That measure gives lawmakers a virtual item-by-item veto over all future changes to the Everglades project, even if no state funds are involved. It's plainly designed to subvert the comprehensive study of South Florida's watershed now being completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Remember that the Corps and the South Florida Water Management District were empowered by Congress to replumb and repurify the Evergladesan enormous engineering project to which every taxpayer in America is contributing.

The last and worst thing to happen would be another layer of interferencenot just extra bureaucracy, but grubby political meddling that could bring the restoration process to a grinding halt.

It's no surprise that Big Sugar, like Big Tobacco, is scared by what's happening lately in Washington, D.C. It's also no surprise that cane growers are turning for a bailout to their favorite slobbering lapdogs, the state politicians in Tallahassee.

Historically, the Legislature has been a faithful friend to Big Sugar and most major agricultural interests. Anything they wanted to dump in our drinking water or spray on the ground was pretty much OK with lawmakers, which is one reason our rivers, bays and estuaries are so sick today.

Allowing the Legislature to now appoint itself chief caretaker of the Everglades would be like putting Ted Kaczynski in charge of the postal service.

If Chiles doesn't do something, the Everglades Forever Act is doomed to be another hollow promise. They'll need to rename it Big Sugar Forever.

Everglades National Park 50th Anniversary Homage to a magical place October 19, 1997 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | Masterpiece foretold a legacy May 17, 1998