In Tallahassee, legislators show they don’t care about you — or clean water

Click to watch Gil Smart, speaking against SB 2508 on behalf of Friends of the Everglades, at the Senate Appropriations Hearing on February 9.

If you ever wanted proof our public servants in Tallahassee think little of you — and even less of your clean-water concerns — we invite you to watch the replay of the Florida Senate Appropriations Committee in action on Feb. 9.

At 9 a.m. that morning the committee took up Senate Bill 2508, a “budget conforming bill” that included a grab bag of bad ideas that could have huge consequences for Florida’s waters — and designed, in part, to tighten Big Sugar’s stranglehold over Lake Okeechobee water management.

Dozens of fishing guides, shop owners, hotel managers and others reliant on clean water were on hand to ask the committee members to vote against the bill. But their presence seemed to annoy some of our esteemed senators.

Some senators suggested these citizens didn’t really understand the legislation. Perhaps they’d been “misled” by environmentalists, as Sen. Ben Albritton put it.

And senators didn’t really have time for their concerns — after all, the committee had a full schedule that day, said the co-chair, Sen. Kelli Stargell. Ultimately, Stargell gave public commenters — some of whom had driven six or even eight hours just to be there — a mere 45 seconds to make their point.

Some didn’t even get that much, if Stargell decided someone else had already made the same points.

Many on hand worried SB 2508 would dilute funding available for the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir; another worrying provision of the bill could let utilities like FPL and Duke Energy evaluate their own requests for wetland permits.

But the most egregious parts of SB 2508 amount to an attempt by Big Sugar to hijack the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ three-year effort to revise the Lake Okeechobee “playbook” for managing the lake.

The new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual is supposed to balance the needs of all stakeholders, including those who want an end to algae-clogged discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. The LOSOM plan now being considered by the Army Corps would provide some relief.

But SB 2508 contains several provisions that would effectively gut those protections, requiring the lake to be managed the way it is right now — for the benefit of Big Sugar and its “water supply” allies, at the expense of everyone else.

The bill had been filed just days earlier; the committee meeting was the only chance to speak against it. Opponents thought this unfair but Stargell waved away their concerns, insisting there was nothing improper about the process – though Gov. Ron DeSantis himself subsequently said the bill had been “rammed through.”

Meanwhile, other members of the panel, including Sen. Lauren Book and Sen. Travis Hutson, quizzed the fishing guides on how thoroughly they’d read the legislation. Had they checked all the cross-references? Did they REALLY know what the bill said?

Sen. Albritton wanders the room, chatting with other Senators, as Florida Keys Captain Steve Friedman gave heartfelt testimony.

Then there was Albritton, sponsor of the measure. For the initial portion of the public comment period, he couldn’t be bothered to listen. He was up, walking around, talking to other senators, laughing, paying no attention to the worried working people at the microphone.

He eventually sat down and listened, but in closing remarks he insisted opponents were “misled” by “smoke and mirrors” and that a portion of the bill that would effectively require the South Florida Water Management District to advocate on behalf of Big Sugar was merely “good government.”

“We have to do what we think is right,” said Albritton.

Our legislators can always be counted on to do right by Big Sugar. But the public?

Not so much. But the public gets the last word.

Four senators voted against the measure: St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, and Democrats Jason Pizzo of Miami and Linda Stewart and Randolph Bracy, both of Orlando.

The other 16 who voted for it: Kelli Stargell, Lauren Book, Travis Hutson, Ben Albritton, and Sens. Aaron Bean, Dennis Baxley, Doug Broxson, Manny Diaz Jr., George Gainer, Audrey Gibson, Ed Hooper, Debbie Mayfield, Kathleen Passidomo, Keith Perry, Bobby Powell and Darryl Ervin Rouson.

They voted against those fishing guides and other working Floridians; they voted against a balanced LOSOM process.

They voted for Big Sugar.

They voted for dirtier water.

Remember their names, this vote — and their contempt for you and your concerns — come election time.

BELOW: Watch Gil Smart speak against SB 2508 on behalf of Friends of the Everglades at the Senate Appropriations Hearing in Tallahassee on February 9, 2022.