TALLAHASSEE — With musician Jimmy Buffett singing about “changes in latitudes” Tuesday outside Florida’s Capitol, proponents of buying Everglades land from U.S. Sugar Corp. hope in the next few weeks to change the attitudes of lawmakers opposed to the deal.
Introduced by writer Carl Hiaasen, Buffett played a 25-minute mid-day acoustic set as part of an Everglades Day rally that attracted more than 500 people to the Capitol courtyard.
“What would Skink do?” Buffett asked the crowd in reference to the fictional former Florida Gov. Clinton Tyree, who appears as a wild hermit known as Skink in a number Hiaasen’s novels.
“He’d do the right thing,” Buffett answered his own question. “Governor. Legislature. Do the right thing. … We want to preserve our water. We want to save our swamp. And we want to have a future for our children in Florida.”
Those backing the U.S. Sugar land purchase want lawmakers to use money from a voter-approved initiative known as Amendment 1 to carry out a 2010 deal that the powerful sugar company now opposes.
The deal signed by former Gov. Charlie Crist calls for the state to acquire 46,800 acres from U.S. Sugar, of which 26,100 acres would be used for construction of the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir. The deal must be completed by Oct. 12 or Florida would have to buy an additional 157,000 acres to get the land for the reservoir.
The sugar land is viewed as a potential flow-way for water from Lake Okeechobee south through the Everglades. Everglades Foundation Chief Executive Officer Eric Eikenberg said U.S. Sugar’s position shouldn’t matter.
“It’s a binding written contract. Their name is on the dotted line,” Eikenberg said after Tuesday’s rally.
Noticeably absent from an audience comprised of state workers, lobbyists and Buffett fans known as “Parrotheads,” were some Republican lawmakers who have criticized the push to use increased funding from Amendment 1 for land purchases, particularly the sugar land deal estimated at $350 million.
Hiaasen pointed to overwhelming voter support in November for Amendment 1, which requires the state to set aside funding for land and water projects. The funding level is projected at $741.8 million next fiscal year, more than $200 million above what lawmakers allocated for such uses in the current year.
“We had a problem. We had a solution. And now we have the money,” Hiaasen told the crowd. “All we need is for our elected leaders to do two things: follow the laws they wrote; and follow the commitment of so many Floridians last November.”
Legislative leaders working to implement Amendment 1 have vastly different ideas about the money. A number of lawmakers, and groups like Associated Industry of Florida’s H2O Coalition, have repeatedly said the state should first take care of land it already owns. Others have pointed to U.S. Sugar’s now-opposition to the sale.
Rep. Matt Caldwell, a North Fort Myers Republican who authored most of the House’s water-related legislation this year, said the House could look at the sugar land in later years, but first among the priorities is cleaning water that now goes into Lake Okeechobee.
“We don’t see how that (sugar) purchase benefits the restoration,” Caldwell said Tuesday. “You’ve got a need to restore the Kissimmee valley. If you really want to stop flows into the estuaries, you have to keep the water in the valley in the first place. You could flood every single farm field south of the lake and you’d still have 2013 damage to the estuaries, because there is more water coming out of the valley then you could ever move south.”
Last year lawmakers approved a $231.9 million package to improve South Florida waterways and direct some water out of Lake Okeechobee to the south rather than into the estuaries to the east and west, which in 2013 were inundated with nutrient-heavy waters released from the lake.
While lawmakers have been criticized for designating little money for land acquisition from the Amendment 1 pool, the House has offered $20 million for the restoration of the Kissimmee River. The Senate has proposed $22 million.
Rep. Jim Boyd, a Bradenton Republican who crafted House legislation to create a trust fund for the Amendment 1 money, said he’s open to discussing the sugar land purchase. However, he said with negotiations pending between the House and Senate, the sugar land price tag is “probably not realistic.”
“We do have a lot of state land already that we’ve got to maintain and manage and that may or may not be good for us in the big picture,” Boyd said of adding the sugar land to the state inventory. “And I know north of the lake (Okeechobee) there are a lot of issues that we need to deal with.”