Legislative sleight of hand

By Meryl Kornfield / IRW and Marcus Stern / The Weather Channel and IRW

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Cattlemen’s Association kicked off the state’s legislative session one day in late January by grilling slabs of steaks at an annual block party steps from the state Capitol.

By the time the session drew to a close in March, the smoky aroma of beef had given way to the taste of victory for the agricultural and ranching industries because the newly passed Clean Waterways Act did little to curb the phosphorus runoff from farms and ranches. That runoff accounts for three-fourths of annual phosphorus loading into Lake Okeechobee, an Investigative Reporting Workshop/Weather.com investigation found.

In addition, farmers and ranchers emerged this year with a bit of protection against future regulations. A one-paragraph provision, slipped into a required budget bill on the last day of the session, consolidated the power of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs to regulate pollution running off farmland.

After years of unsightly and smelly algal blooms, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were ready to take action. The algae that periodically carpet Florida’s beaches is stimulated by phosphorus, a key ingredient in fertilizer. Farm runoff carries phosphorus into Lake Okeechobee, and then into rivers and man-made canals that carry it to beach cities and tourist hubs on the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.

For more than a decade the agricultural department has run a largely voluntary program that was supposed to slow the flow of phosphorus. But the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Okeechobee today is roughly the same as it was in 2001, when the state ordered what would have amounted to a 70 percent reduction by 2015.

State data show agricultural runoff is the source of three-quarters of the phosphorus. Yet not a single rancher or farmer has been referred to the state’s environmental department for not complying with the program’s guidelines.

This year’s bill would increase the frequency of inspections to every two years, rather than every three to four years, the rate at which state employees have been visiting sites, according to the department’s data.

However, it is unclear how much increased inspections would enhance enforcement efforts because the site visits have never resulted in a referral to the environmental department, according to DEP.

Chris Pettit, the head of water policy for the agricultural department, said no one has been referred to the environmental department because the farmers and ranchers are given a window of time, based on the issue, to correct any non-compliance issues. He said the program does the best it can under the law to mitigate phosphorus runoff.

“We are executing our programs to the best of our ability,” he said. “If you’re talking about a bowl into which drops are falling, our program exists to reduce those drops to the greatest extent possible, and we feel as well that we do the best job we can do under the law.”

Kimberly Mitchell, the executive director of the Everglades Trust, a political not-for-profit group focused on the Everglades watershed, told IRW and Weather.com that this year’s bill, while meaningful for sewer and septic regulation, doesn’t tackle agriculture’s contributions to phosphorus as needed.

“At a time when Floridians are recognizing a growing problem that manifests itself in toxic algae exploding in Lake Okeechobee and stunting both coasts of Florida, you would think that a Legislature that has read those headlines and seen this going on would have a much greater sense of urgency than was shown in the legislation that was produced.”

But Matt Pearce, president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, the trade group for the statewide industry that boasts a $1 billion herd, said it would be negligent if the state also did not address urban sources of pollution. Cattle have been a part of the Florida landscape since Spainards introduced livestock to the area 500 years ago.

“Through this session, it wasn’t just a target on agriculture’s back,” he said. “Everyone’s got to be to blame. It’s sewer. It’s septic. It’s municipalities. It’s wastewater. Ag is the easy target because we have the least amount of money to get out there and defend ourselves.”

Matt Pearce, owner of Pearce Cattle Company in Okeechobee, Florida.  (Zak Bennett for Weather.com)

The agricultural industry, one of the greatest streams of revenue to the state, is afforded meetings with key powerbrokers in Tallahassee. In a long-standing tradition, the association holds its barbecue just steps from the Capitol for members who arrive sporting cowboy hats and leather boots.

They use the day to lobby for funding for the University of Florida’s agricultural research facilities, which train them and others in their industry. They also tout other agricultural department programs, such the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, which is funding the department uses to distribute grants to farmers and ranchers so that they continue to use their property for agriculture.

Pettit, of the agriculture department, said there’s a reason the state partners with the association and other agricultural groups.

“It behooves us to find those cooperative relationships that will result in successful projects to benefit the ecosystem,” he said.

Executive committee members of the cattlemen’s group met with Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, telling her that she’d “done a good job” as she pinned their logo to her lapel.

The group’s political action committee, which has spent $843,000 since 2013, gave Fried’s Republican opponent 15 times more in campaign contributions than she received during the 2018 campaign.

But when they met with her, they called her “our commissioner.”

“We’re on your side. You don’t need to sell yourself to us,” association president Pearce told Fried.

Nikki Fried meets with Florida cattle ranchers
Nikki Fried (center), Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, meets with Florida Cattlemen’s Association President Matt Pearce (right), and other Florida-based cattle farmers, at Florida’s Capitol Complex in Tallahassee, Florida. (Zak Bennett for Weather.com)

Cowboy hats around the room bobbed in agreement.

But it’s not just the cowboys. The agricultural industry, from sugar corporations to citrus farmers, has given millions to state politicians. Florida Citrus Mutual PAC has spent more than $1.4 million; Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association has spent more than $704,000.

The sponsor of the water bill, Sen. Debbie Mayfield, a Republican representing a coastal district near Central Florida, got $13,700 from the association, ranchers and farmers in her last election in 2016. She didn’t receive campaign contributions from environmental groups.

At a morning meeting on the association’s lobbying day, Pettit spoke to the cowboys, thanking them for their lobbying efforts on behalf of the department:

“We’re keeping a very, very close eye on that bill,” Pettit told about 100 ranchers, adding that he was watching in particular for any amendment to the bill that would give oversight to the environmental protection department.

Pearce also shared concerns about the environmental protection department, especially whether its employees understand ranchers.

“There’s some trust with the employees, and no offense to DEP employees, but they are more urban, non-ag educated folks,” he said. “They’re not going to gain the access to the farms and ranches that are needed.”

At the closed-door meeting that IRW/Weather.com were given access to by the ranchers, Fried thanked them for their support and told them she was there to listen to them.

The cowboys told Fried they were concerned that the water management district in South Florida would write rules that could expand its authority.

Fried assured them that she had told the district that ranches and farms were her purview.

“I told them that we know our community better. We know what is necessary, and we aren’t here to play gotcha,” she said. “That’s not the point.”

Fifty-eight days later, Fried’s promise to the cowboys was echoed by a section added in the 11th hour to a required budget bill defining the agricultural department as the agency responsible for regulating agricultural runoff — instead of the environmental protection department or the water management district.

On the last day of session, March 19, Rep. Javier Fernandez, a Democrat who represents a suburban Miami district, rose to ask his colleagues how this provision came about and what it meant.

Looking down at a paper handed to her by a staffer, Rep. Holly Raschein, a Republican who represents the Florida Keys, said the section was meant to further specify what was already established in a 2016 law: The water management district’s responsibility was to monitor water quality.

But the section also said the district didn’t have purview over agriculture.

Fernandez questioned whether the change would cancel efforts to implement water-quality rules in the north end of Lake Okeechobee, where many farmers and ranchers have fallen under the agriculture department’s voluntary program.

“I’m going to take a stab at this,” Raschein said, “and say ‘no.’”

But Fernandez isn’t sure that’s accurate.

“We’re spending a considerable amount of money on water quality initiatives, whether it’s to improve conditions in the Caloosahatchee or St. Lucy and the areas north of Lake Okeechobee,” he said in an interview with IRW/Weather.com after the budget passed. “And this potential language, as I read it, could limit the rulemaking authority of the district in a way that would not allow them to replicate gains they’ve made south of Lake Okeechobee.”

Even with the bill set into law, Fernandez wonders how the change happened.

“This language … is concerning because, for one, it is not vetted,” Fernandez said. “And depending on how you read it, there’s probably some well-founded disagreement about what the effect is.”

Raschein said she wasn’t sure how the section was added. Neither was Fred Piccolo, the spokesman for Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva. Pettit said the agricultural department didn’t know about the amended language until after it was added.

At the cattlemen’s block party in Tallahassee before the session opened, the street cordoned off by police cars was packed. Lobbyists, lawyers and lawmakers schmoozed over free food and drinks. Steak and “swamp cabbage fritters,” fried balls made from part of a type of palm tree, are signature dishes at the event.

Cutting grilled meat
Slicing grilled beef at the cattlemen’s block party in the state captial. (Zak Bennett for Weather.com)

Near the tables of steaks, a single tray of cut vegetables sat next to a stack of bumper stickers and pamphlets.

“EAT BEEF,” one sticker declared. “The West wasn’t won on salad.”

Ranchers gathered around a large black smoker and joked about booze and women.

“You aren’t a vegan are you?” one cowboy asked a reporter as he flipped a cut of meat across the fire.

While the atmosphere is jovial, ranchers are worried. Among each other, they express concern that newcomers to the state can’t relate to them.

“When we had 2 million cattle and 2 million people, we didn’t have water problems,” said association lawyer Sam Ard. “ Now we have 21.3 million people and 1 million cattle, and they want to blame us for polluting.”

You can read more about legacy phosphorous and the state’s challenges here.