The Sunshine Economy
10:30 pm
Sun February 23, 2014

Big Sugar's Influence Stretches From South Florida To Washington

Sugar companies get money from taxpayers through the U.S. Farm Bill. In turn, those companies pay a privilege tax to help clean up the environmental damage caused by sugar farming.
Credit africa/freedigitalphotos.net

Sugar is one of the biggest special interests in Tallahassee. More sugar comes from Florida than anywhere else in the country. 

It’s grown in a 700,000-acre region between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades known as the Everglades Agricultural Area. (Actual farming acreage, which includes other crops, is 470,000 because of conservation areas and other projects.) 

Florida sugar growers say they provide the state with $3.1 billion in economic activity each year – and 12,500 jobs. The processing facilities say they are self-sufficient, operating on renewable energy and selling surplus electricity back to the Florida Power and Light grid.

“Historically, big sugar has meant big bucks for politicians running for office,” says University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus. She says sugar companies are often successful at getting legislation passed -- or preventing less appealing proposals from moving forward.

“In Florida, it has been an industry that has very much been involved in trying to influence the political process legally through PACs (political action committees) and other contributions,” MacManus says. 

But, she says other agriculture industries that spend big money on campaigns and lobbying efforts have found similar success. (Disclosure: MacManus’ family has long worked in agriculture.)

While people are often surprised to hear how much money special interests contribute to political campaigns, “special interest to one person means an advocacy group to another, so the semantics of it make a difference,” MacManus says.

Alan Farago, president of Friends of the Everglades, says the sugar industry gets what it wants, when it wants it, thanks to its influence on Washington and Florida policymakers.

“When the sugar industry needs to change a piece of legislation, it can flood the hallways of the state legislature as it has done in the past with literally more lobbyists than legislators,” Farago says. “There is simply no way for the environmental community or for the public interest to be adequately represented.”

Farago says the sugar industry also wields considerable authority over the state’s water management districts.

“There is virtually no piece of Everglades restoration that can proceed without the sugar industry's endorsement,” Farago said. “In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that the entire Everglades restoration effort is a workaround of Big Sugar.”

“There are undoubtedly critics of sugar farming that call themselves environmental advocates,” says Brian Hughes, spokesman for Florida Sugar Farmers, a coalition that includes U.S. Sugar Corporation and Florida Crystals.

“Last year, we worked hand in hand with the Everglades Foundation and Florida Audubon to help craft a bill that is now law that will enshrine really the final phase of Everglades restoration,” Hughes says. “What people should understand about Florida sugar farmers is that they are good stewards of the land.”

Hughes says the industry pays billions of dollars of additional “privilege taxes” just to farm. He says growers also spend millions more on best management practices designed to help improve water quality on farms.

Critics say Big Sugar’s unabashed power in Washington has garnered federal subsidies for the industry under the U.S. Farm Bill that actually drive up prices for American consumers.

“It’s not a subsidy,” Hughes said. “The federal program is about protecting American farmers from foreign subsidized producers.”

“Like most agricultural sectors, Florida sugar farmers work in a highly regulated environment,” Hughes said. “It’s just important to work with government officials to make sure they understand the impact of public policy on this important part of Florida’s agriculture sector.”