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Monday, December 5, 2016

In Tallahassee, Florida, you can be a gutsy champion for the Everglades, or just another lame shill for Big Sugar.

You can’t be both, though some politicians try to pretend.

Check out Steve Crisafulli, the Republican speaker of the Florida House. He comes from a citrus family, once headed the Brevard County Farm Bureau and has his eye on becoming state agricultural commissioner.

Crisafulli lives in Merritt Island, which is bordered by the Indian River Lagoon, a 156-mile-long body of water whose southern end is being devastated by agricultural pollutants pumped recklessly from Lake Okeechobee.

Right now the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is flushing an average 614 million gallons of nitrogen- and phosphorus-tainted lake water every day into the St. Lucie River, which flows into the Indian River Lagoon through the St. Lucie Estuary.

The idea is to regulate the levels in Lake Okeechobee so it won’t overflow during in the rainy season. However, the water dumping causes massive algae blooms, fish kills and a nightmare for marine and tourist businesses along the Treasure Coast.

Because of where he lives, Crisafulli would seem a likely crusader for the Indian River Lagoon, a person who’d fight for those whose livelihoods depend on it. As House speaker, he can guide funds for the acquisition of key land near Lake Okeechobee to be used for cleaning the polluted farm runoff and sending it south through the Everglades.

One problem: That land is owned by U.S. Sugar, and U.S. Sugar has Crisafulli on a short puppet string.

Crisafulli and his political action committee took $94,500 from company sources during the last two election cycles. U.S. Sugar board directors (and their wives) gave him $500 checks.

He was also one of several Florida politicians, including Governor Rick Scott, who went on secret hunting trips to Texas arranged by U.S. Sugar. Those hunts took place at the King Ranch, also a major holder of cane acreage near Lake Okeechobee.

When a Herald/Times reporter tried to reach Crisafulli last year, he referred all questions about the U.S. Sugar junkets to a media spokesman who also happens to work for the sugar growers’ coalition.

This indicates a troubling lack of independence by Crisafulli, or at the very least, a lack of shame.

Last fall, Floridians in a landslide approved Amendment 1, which calls for the use of existing real-estate stamp taxes to buy lands vital for conservation and improving water quality.

It will generate at least $750 million a year, filling the hole left by the Legislature’s gutting of the Florida Forever program.

The purchase so important to saving the Indian River Lagoon and replenishing the Everglades was agreed to by U.S. Sugar seven years ago — 46,800 total acres near Clewiston, valued at $350 million.

One parcel, 26,100 acres, is well situated to be a reservoir for filtering the dirty water before letting it flow south. A recent University of Florida water study, commissioned by the Senate, endorsed that concept.

U.S. Sugar said it was a terrific idea back in 2008, when the company gave the state an option to purchase the tracts. The option is due to expire in October and, now that Amendment 1 funds are available, U.S. Sugar wants to weasel out of the deal.

Last fall, the company presented a development plan for the acreage that envisions 18,000 homes and 25 million square feet of offices, warehouses and retail space. U.S. Sugar says such a project is years away, but the negative effect of killing the state’s land deal would be immediate.

Voters want the Amendment 1 funds to be spent exactly on projects like the Lake Okeechobee cleanup, but allocating the money is up to lawmakers and the governor. The prospects look grim.

While Crisafulli is a huge beneficiary of U.S. Sugar donations, the company has been generous to practically every major player in Tallahassee. Last year, U.S. Sugar interests donated $2.2 million statewide to GOP candidates.

Governor Scott, who once denounced the taint of Big Sugar’s money, hungrily took millions from the industry for his re-election campaign.

Killing the U.S. Sugar land deal is easy for Scott and lawmakers. All they’ve got to do is leave the Clewiston-area property off the list of conservation purchases until the option lapses.

That’s what U.S. Sugar assumes they’ll do, because that’s the kind of obedience the company expects when they give gobs of money to a politician. No one was under more pressure to roll over than Crisafulli, and no one had more to gain politically by standing up to do the right thing.

Not happening.

In an email to the Palm Beach Post, Crisafulli stated his opposition to using Amendment 1 funds to buy the U.S. Sugar land “at this time,” saying Everglades restoration efforts should focus on pending projects.

This puppet dance, while pleasing to sugar growers, is a kick in the teeth to all the Floridians who supported Amendment 1, especially those who’ve been watching the slow death of the Indian River Lagoon.

Every day 614 million gallons of polluted water are pouring out of Lake Okeechobee toward the lagoon, but Steve Crisafulli has other priorities.

That’s one way to get your name known outside of Brevard County.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132.

Photo: Lake Okeechobee looking west from Port Mayaca where the St. Lucie Canal meets the lake. (Visit Florida/Peter W. Cross via Flickr)