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Florida lawmakers lobbied on farm bill

By JOHN BALZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 3, 2001


WASHINGTON -- In years past, Florida lawmakers cast votes on the farm bill knowing that their decisions would yield the state little but cost it less. This year, however, they are paying attention to one vote in particular that could bring their farmers an additional $500-million in conservation benefits -- but at a possible political consequence.

WASHINGTON -- In years past, Florida lawmakers cast votes on the farm bill knowing that their decisions would yield the state little but cost it less. This year, however, they are paying attention to one vote in particular that could bring their farmers an additional $500-million in conservation benefits -- but at a possible political consequence.

The No. 1 agricultural debate in the 10-year, $171-billion farm bill is whether to take money away from commodity crop subsidies and shift it to conservation programs. The House is preparing to consider an amendment to the bill as early as today that would more than double the nation's conservation funding.

The farm lobby and top Republican leaders have been aggressively lobbying members to defeat the conservation amendment. The chairman of the Agriculture Committee has threated to pull the entire bill off the floor if the amendment is approved.

Until now, Florida has been above the regional squabbles of agriculture policy, but a strong showing of support for the conservation package could spark the wrath of lawmakers from the nation's heartland. Peanut subsidies and the federal government's sugar-loan program might be vulnerable to extinction without the support of the Midwest.

But lawmakers from the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, who tend not to receive subsidies and therefore favor conservation packages, are trolling for votes in states like Florida that grow fruits and vegetables instead of corn and wheat. Fruit and vegetable growers are not eligible for government subsidies, and conservation supporters have been trying to sell the benefits of additional money. They point out that Florida has a $70-million backlog of conservation projects.

"If Florida doesn't get its fair share of this, it's going to have to wait a long time," said Tim Searchinger, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund.

As written, the bill would give Florida about $50-million a year in conservation funding, an increase of 75 percent over the last version passed in 1996. But Reps. Ron Kind, D-Wis., and Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md., want to add an additional $1.9-billion a year to programs that help farmers improve water quality, restore wetlands and reduce nitrogen and phosphorous runoff.

Environmentalists and opponents of government waste see Florida and its block of 22 votes as one key to pushing the amendment over the top.

They have received some interested nibbles from Florida lawmakers. Rep. Porter Goss, the Sanibel Republican with an environmental streak, said he is inclined to support the idea but would like to see the overall bill. Rep. Dan Miller, R-Bradenton, a longtime opponent of sugar growers, plans to vote for the amendment. And Rep. Ric Keller, R-Orlando, new to Congress and the farm bill debate, sees benefits to the state.

"It's not going to hurt our farmers, but it would give us more money for Everglades restoration," said Keller.

According to an analysis of Department of Agriculture data by the Environmental Working Group, conservation spending in Florida since 1996 has totaled $30-million. Many congressional districts in states like Iowa and Kansas typically receive more than $200-million a year in subsidy payments alone.

The two Florida members who have been under intense pressure to vote against the amendment are Reps. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello, and Adam Putnam, R-Bartow. Boyd remains undecided while Putnam, the only Floridian on the committee, has rebuffed the amendment.

He says that the Kind amendment would "gut" support programs to farmers and cause some lawmakers to reverse their support for the overall bill. "It if passes everyone recognizes that you will have completely unraveled the farm bill," said Putnam.

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