photo by Jason Hargrove
Suppose I said I was going to give you a gift: I would load you into a crowded, noisy helicopter and fly you over the swamps of central Florida, eventually setting you back down right where we started.
Yes, you might consider that an exciting present - if you are about 9 years old. Otherwise, maybe not so much.
Since those under 10 aren’t usually serving in Tallahassee, when a company with extensive landholdings in central Florida offered to fly state lawmakers over the region, it probably was not doing them any big favor.
Water is always an important topic in Florida. Sometimes there’s too little of it. Often there’s too much. Keeping it clean enough for the health of the state’s residents, and of its tourism industry, is a very big deal. So it’s bad news when the big but very shallow Lake Okeechobee in the center of the state overflows and sends contaminant-laden water coursing through the Everglades, into the canals that flow right through some of the state’s biggest cities and, eventually, into wildlife-filled coastal estuaries.
With its flat terrain, Florida is not a good place to build large dams or reservoirs. If you want somewhere to store water in Florida, you either need to dig a very big hole or let it sit on the surface of the land. Recently Florida officials have turned to this second option.
Water farming is a program supported by the South Florida Water Management District. The agency pays large agricultural operators to hold rainwater on their property, attempting to keep the lake’s levels under control. This option is arguably lower-impact than the creation of permanent containment options on public property.
Critics of the water-farming program have compared it to corporate welfare, arguing that farmers are paid to do essentially nothing. This ignores the opportunity cost inherent in turning fields into mini-lakes, however. Since rice is not a leading Florida crop, letting water sit on the land typically means you’re not using it to grow things.
All of this means that a story claiming a company was bribing legislators with helicopter flights over fields and swamps doesn’t make much sense. But that did not keep such a story from appearing in the Miami Herald. The Herald recently reported that Alico, a major agriculture corporation that stood to benefit from the water-farming program, asked the state Legislature to support it when the South Florida agency ran out of money. In reaching out to legislators, Alico took several legislative leaders on four-hour helicopter rides around Lake Okeechobee.
The stated point of these trips was educational. Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, told the Herald that the Alico lobbyists used the trip to teach him about water farming; Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, said “It was helpful seeing first hand these projects that as a legislator we may be asked to make decisions about on an ongoing basis.” Alico spokeswoman Sarah Bascom characterized lawmaker trips as “an educational tour.”
The Herald values these trips as worth about $5,000 each. It is my suspicion that most adults offered a gift of that value would prefer nearly anything over a noisy helicopter ride above a flooded field.
The Legislature ultimately did approve the money, which did not go directly to Alico, but rather to the South Florida water district board. Alico was, however, among the companies that received contracts through the newly funded program. Did this outcome hinge on the aerial field trips? I don’t know, but I don’t see why it matters. I live in South Florida, and I am more than happy to pay Alico, or anyone else, to make sure that what flows into Lake Okeechobee stays in Lake Okeechobee.
Alico also wrote several checks to lawmakers’ political action committees and other campaign funding sources, which is arguably much more newsworthy. If you want to make the point that the state’s landholders and companies are active politically, contributing to campaigns and PACs of lawmakers in Tallahassee, and thereby earning their attention if not their favors, go ahead. The state law that allows PACs to collect unlimited amounts, while legislators can collect only $1,000, is one that those who worry about such corporate influence can certainly revisit on any slow news day. Campaign finance is both fair game and an evergreen topic for political reporters.
But if you count noisy joyrides over swamps as a gift of value, you probably ought to restrict your discussion to 9-year-olds.