I recently noticed the Fort Pierce News Tribune added a new meter to its editorial page. The Tribune, as well as other Treasure Coast Scripps newspapers, is counting down the days that the State Legislature has to purchase 46,800 acres of U.S. Sugar property at a price that was set in 2008. This is not the first time the News Tribune displayed a meter at the top of that page. For more than a year, it had the Pruitt meter, which counted down the number of days St. Lucie Property Appraiser Ken Pruitt refused to discuss whether he would keep his lucrative lobbying business or give it up and be a full time county property appraiser.
The new meter has a much shorter deadline. The state Legislature must decide this session whether to purchase the U.S. Sugar land that would be part of a plan to divert polluted Lake Okeechobee water from flowing into the Indian River Lagoon. After that, the agreed upon price for the land, negotiated by former Gov. Charlie Crist, is off the table.
A yes vote from the legislature should be a no-brainer. Thanks to Amendment 1, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in November, the state has more than enough money to buy the land for $346.3 million. And one would think that our local state representatives and State Sen. Joe Negron would be leading the charge to get the deal done. Not so. Except for State Rep. Larry Lee, who is the lone Democrat to represent us on the Treasure Coast, none have really pushed their colleagues in Tallahassee to approve the purchase.
Negron deferred talking up the plan until he saw the results of a University of Florida study about the proposal. The study was completed this month, and to the surprise of no one, the report said buying the land is a viable way to help resolve the pollution problem. After all, the UF report comes after decades of studies and discussions involving the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the South Florida Water Management District, the Sierra Club, Everglades Foundation and anyone else who has a stake in the Indian River. More than a year ago, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson was railing about the pollution on the Senate floor, holding up a jar of the dingy brackish water he scooped up from the Indian River.
So now we taxpayers are finally seeing a plan that could help save our lagoon and what do we hear from our local politicians? Not a whole lot.
After the UF report was released Negron told the News Tribune he is “seriously considering” the state purchase of U.S. Sugar property. And, he said he will use his “legislative energies” to get the deal done. Not quite the enthusiasm one would expect from a state senator who should know that saving the Indian River lagoon is probably his constituents’ number one priority. And he should have known that this will be an uphill battle that must be won by May 1. With a Republican controlled Legislature, many of whom have accepted tens of thousands of sugar money for their campaigns, there will be a lot of push back approving a deal that U.S. Sugar no longer wants.
Indeed, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli (R-Merritt Island) opposes the deal because he said the state doesn't need any more land. The fact that he received thousands in campaign donations from Big Sugar probably won’t help him change his mind any time soon.
Gayle Harrell told Scripps newspapers she would support the purchase only if the land is deemed “appropriate.” And Rep. Mary Lynn Magar, (R-Tequesta) said she is “looking into it.” So much for the rallies, the fundraising, the editorials, extensive publicity and years of meetings to find ways to save the lagoon. Unless we see some major arm twisting and wheeling and dealing from our representatives, U.S. Sugar will be able to back out of the deal that would have saved taxpayers millions.
Our best hope is that Negron will use his clout---after all, he is a strong contender to be Senate President in 2016—to get his fellow Republicans in the Senate and House to vote for the purchase. Although he negotiated millions for the lagoon in the past, his constituents will remember what happens this legislative session for a long time. Gayle Harrell should also be wary. The long-time representative has already drawn opposition for the 2016 race for District 83.Her Democratic opponent is Crystal M. Lucas, a biology teacher at Indian River Community College. Lucas’s passion---the environment and saving the Indian River lagoon.
The Tribune’s Pruitt meter didn't have much impact. Pruitt still is our property appraiser and a lobbyist---ironically one of his clients is Big Sugar. Hopefully, the Tribune’s countdown on the purchase of U.S. Sugar land will raise enough awareness to get the deal done. But I am not counting on it.
What I do hope is that if this deal fails, voters along the Treasure Coast will know who to hold accountable and do something about it.