TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- While the Everglades still struggle years after a landmark state and federal agreement on restoration plans, Florida Division of Elections records show tens of millions in political contributions from an industry that environmentalists blame for pollution in the wetlands.
The sugar industry, led by United States Sugar and Florida Crystals, steered $57.8 million in direct and in-kind contributions to state and local political campaigns between 1994 and 2016, according to a review of state elections records by the Tallahassee bureau shared by The Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times.
The total does not include federal contributions.
Environmental groups argue the political contributions resulted in the state softening regulations for sugar cane growers and other agricultural operations and undermining voter-approved Everglades cleanup initiatives.
Though Florida voters in 2014 approved an amendment requiring over $700 million a year for buying land for conservation projects, the Legislature has instead dedicated $200 million a year for Everglades projects that don't necessarily include land acquisitions.
The state allows the sugar industry to rely on "best management practices," and the budget at the state agency that oversees the Everglades has been cut by 30 percent.
"I can tell you, firsthand, that the industry is directly involved with every decision this Legislature makes," said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation and a chief of staff to former Gov. Charlie Crist.
Data released this year by the state's Everglades managers shows decreasing levels of phosphorus entering the protected wetlands.
"What the environmental activists won't tell you is that today, 90 percent of the water in the Everglades is meeting highly stringent federal water quality standards of 10 parts per billion," said Malcolm "Bubba" Wade Jr., senior vice president of corporate strategy and business development for U.S. Sugar. "Farmers have invested $400 million in cleaning the water heading south to the Everglades, and have reduced phosphorus through best management practices by an annual average of 56 percent over the last two decades."
Republican state Rep. Matt Caldwell of Lehigh Acres told the newspapers that residential development is as much to blame for Everglades pollution as the sugar industry.
"Since 1947, the farmland has been urbanized, and 3 million people live west of I-95 on what used to be sawgrass," Caldwell said. "If all sawgrass is equal, the homeowner in Hialeah should have as much chance of his land being condemned for Everglades cleanup as the farmer does. But the farmer lives under the fear that will only happen to him."
Caldwell is among state leaders, including Gov. Rick Scott and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who have been guests at U.S. Sugar's hunting ranch in Texas. He said the sugar industry's political clout is justified.
"The sugar industry has been involved in stakeholder politics, but it's equally true their opponents have been myopically focused on the industry's demise," he said.
According to the newspapers' analysis, U.S. Sugar in Clewiston, controlled by Michigan-based Charles Stewart Mott and the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, made $33.3 million in political contributions between 1994 and 2016. Florida Crystals, owned by the Palm Beach-based Fanjul family, and its affiliates contributed $12.4 million in the same period.
The records show a shift in the 1998-1999 election cycle when Big Sugar, previously a contributor to Florida Democrats, became a significant supporter of the Republican Party of Florida. At the time, Jeb Bush was a candidate for governor and the party had secured power in the Legislature.
Meanwhile, Big Sugar was giving $19.4 million to a group that unsuccessfully tried to defeat a voter-supported amendment to the state constitution that required industries polluting the Everglades to pay for their share of the damage.
The 1996 amendment was not self-executing, however, and the Legislature refused to implement it. The Florida Supreme Court ruled the law couldn't take effect without legislative action. Legislators eventually implemented the amendment but with a cap on taxes imposed on sugar-cane growers.
According to the newspapers' analysis, the sugar industry contributed over half a million dollars for the 2002-2003 election cycle. In 2003, state lawmakers pushed back deadlines for improving water quality in Lake Okeechobee under a partnership with the federal government announced three years earlier.
U.S. Sugar struck a deal in 2008, with Crist, then a Republican, to sell 300 square miles of land to the state for $1.7 billion and suspend operations. Then the economy collapsed, state funding ran low, legislators balked and the company changed its mind.
Ultimately, just 42 square miles were purchased for $197 million. Scott, whose political committee received $1 million in sugar contributions by last year, has passed on options to purchase more.
Information from: The Miami Herald