By Steve Bousquet
TALLAHASSEE — Eric Eikenberg was at his kid’s soccer practice when his phone rang.
“I got a call saying ‘There’s a bill in the Senate reversing all the momentum,’” said Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation. “Not surprised.”
It has set off a furor in Florida’s Capitol — one that won’t subside any time soon.
This is the Legislature at its arrogant worst, plowing ahead with environmental policy changes in a bill that blindsided the public and key players and got its one and only hearing on three days’ notice.
But listen to the bill’s unapologetic champion, Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula.
“We’re the Legislature. We write the laws. We’re the appropriators,” Albritton told a roomful of hostile critics Wednesday in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The bill (SB 2508) reopens an age-old battle and continues to give priority to the sugar industry in allocating water from Lake Okeechobee. It requires the South Florida Water Management District to protect Big Sugar’s interests in its partnership with the federal Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps — not the Legislature — manages Lake O’s levels and is in charge of building a massive reservoir south of the lake in Palm Beach County, designed to reduce harmful discharges, prevent toxic algae blooms and restore water to the Everglades.
A top district official said the bill’s fine print requires the district to protect the sugar industry by advocating for existing water interests under existing law, not what President Biden’s administration wants. Five years after the Senate approved the reservoir, the new bill will require that project to compete with other projects for state money, which Eikenberg said puts it at risk.
“This is a classic flip-flop by the Florida Senate,” Eikenberg said.
Despite such short notice, dozens of fishing captains, guides and worried citizens still made it to Tallahassee to denounce the Senate’s surprise maneuver as they filled social media with incendiary criticism of lawmakers and promised a lot more in the weeks ahead.
“These folks don’t quit when they’re tired,” Capt. C. A. Richardson told senators. “They quit when they’re done.”
A visibly peeved Eikenberg, who worked in the governor’s office and Congress, glared at senators and said: “I know how this process works.”
The first sign of shilling for sugar is that the changes are in a “conforming bill” that’s needed annually to conform laws with budget actions.
What makes this maneuver more suspicious is that conforming bills can’t be amended easily and are linked to the budget, making a veto difficult. That’s why it’s the wrong place to write new policy, especially involving Florida’s most precious commodity — water.
But no senator filed a separate stand-alone bill on how water should be shared. There are no more hearings on this bill, and it’s set for a Senate floor vote Thursday, Feb. 17.
To the many Floridians at Wednesday’s hearing, it was plain as day that a chamber led by Senate President Wilton Simpson was again doing Big Sugar’s bidding — literally carrying water for the sugar industry, contrary to the concerns of fishing, boating, real estate and tourism that all drive Florida’s economy (without the hefty federal subsidies enjoyed by the sugar industry, by the way).
As laws are changed and lives affected, it is never a good thing when a presiding officer in the Legislature is simultaneously running for a higher office. Simpson is a Republican candidate for agriculture commissioner and a recipient of an astounding amount of sugar industry campaign money, including $675,000 to one of several political committees he chairs, Jobs for Florida.
Forget about those lake levels for a moment. Look at money levels instead.
Tensions escalated when senators accused the bill’s opponents of being snookered. “You’ve been misled,” Albritton said.
“Nobody’s misinformed what the strategy is and what the tactics are,” Eikenberg told reporters afterward.
Eikenberg can afford to talk tough and criticize senators by name because he has a powerful ally on his side: Gov. Ron DeSantis, who said the Senate bill “is being rammed through the budget process, short-circuiting public engagement and leaving affected agencies in the dark.”
But naturally, it glided to passage 16-4, with four Democrats voting yes. They were Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, and Sens. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, and Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. The Republicans love it when Democrats provide cover as they’re being attacked for favoring special interests.
Only one Republican voted no. Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg wondered aloud why, if this bill is so important, nobody bothered to pick up the phone and discuss it with the water management district or the governor’s office.
“Always be wary of conforming bills,” Brandes said. “Period.”
This column originally appeared in the South Florida Sun Sentinel.