August 1, 2008

Florida House Members Decry Secrecy of Sugar Deal

By Billy House, Media General Washington Bureau

Jul. 31--WASHINGTON -- Some of Florida's U.S. House members complained Wednesday about being kept in the dark during the state's secret negotiations of a $1.75 billion proposed buyout of U.S. Sugar Corp.

Several, including Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow, the nation's third-ranking House Republican, also told state officials at a meeting that they have concerns about Gov. Charlie Crist's proposal, marketed as a way to save the Florida Everglades.

"It's clear that this deal is now facing the consequences of the secrecy with which it was negotiated and the lack of impacted parties being part of the negotiation," Putnam said after the meeting.

A closing on a negotiated contract between the South Florida Water Management District and U.S. Sugar is set for November.

Among the issues raised by the lawmakers Wednesday of the plan to restore water flow from the Northern Everglades to the River of Grass:

--Is the price the state would pay Clewiston-based U.S. Sugar for its 187,000 acres and other holdings in the northern Everglades too high? One lawmaker, Democrat Allen Boyd of Monticello suggested it might be.

--Can this amount really be paid for without raising taxes?

--How much of that will rely on suspending other projects?

--What other projects might have to be halted or scaled back because of incompatibility with the plans to create a network of reservoirs and water-treatment marshes connecting Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades?

--In the six years that U.S. Sugar will be given to wind down its operations before closing shop, what will the impact be on Clewiston and nearby communities? How about job losses and other local effects, such as on farming?

--Why wasn't the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state's 50 percent federal partner in Everglades restoration work, not brought into the negotiations with U.S. Sugar?

Despite the questions, there was no indication that House members were set on trying to scuttle the deal.

A federal hammer could possibly be wielded by blocking needed funding, or tying any future funding to more specific requirements. However, House members Wednesday seemed more angered at federal officials being left out of the loop.

"If you want me on the landing, then you ought to have me on the take-off," said Rep. Alcee Hastings of Miramar, a Democrat who is the dean of the Florida House delegation.

Added Putnam: "The bottom line is, all of the assumptions, modeling and engineering that the federal-state [Everglades restoration] partnership is based on are substantially out the window, because it wasn't based on this event occurring, this purchase. So, you've got to hit the pause button."

In addition, Putnam said there has been inadequate attention paid to the immediate effect on the surrounding communities, and that some home values there are plummeting.

"Why would someone want to move to these communities with this kind of uncertainty hanging out there?" he asked. "So, while the engineers and hydrologists may have over a decade to figure this deal out, the people who make their homes south of the lake are suffering today," he said.

Michael Sole, secretary of Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, at one point during the meeting said, "This is not a done deal," but also called it a "fantastic opportunity" for the state.

He later said "the questions the Congressional delegation raised are good questions. It is my expectation the state will address those concerns as we move forward."


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