Rising powers in Florida: ALEC and Big Ag
The third (and fourth) of five questions facing Florida lawmakers as they begin the 2024 legislative session.
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We’re now less than 24 hours away from the opening gavel of the Florida Legislature’s 2024 session. So let’s continue with our list of five big questions that state lawmakers will answer over the next 60 days.
The first two questions posted yesterday:
We’ll do two more in this post, starting with Question 3:
How many copycat laws will this Legislature pass?
One of the truisms of Tallahassee is that speakers of the House and presidents of the Senate reach the apex of their power in the year before they officially take control of their chambers. Which means that Rep. Danny Perez, a Miami Republican who will be sworn in as House speaker after the November elections, is reaching the mountaintop right about now.
Perez is also deeply involved with the American Legislative Exchange Council — better known is ALEC, the corporate-funded “bill mill” that shops conservative, copycat legislation in state houses across the country. And it sure seems like ALEC bills are everywhere this session.
For instance, within hours of starting the session on Tuesday, the House of Representatives will take up a pair of resolutions attempting to force a national constitutional convention — where states could then propose new amendments to the United States Constitution. This is an idea that ALEC is pushing hard right now.
The next day, the Senate will start work on a bill that could criminalize protests at “critical infrastructure facilities,” like power plants, gas pipelines and phosphate mines. Climate-change activists believe the Florida bill is based on ALEC’s “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act” — a model policy pushed by the fossil-fuel industry. The House version of the legislation is being carried through the chamber by Rep. Jennifer Canady (R-Lakeland), who is line to become speaker of the House a few years after Perez.
At the same time, another future House speaker in waiting behind Perez — Rep. Sam Garrison (R-Fleming Island) — is sponsoring a bill that would prevent a county commission or city council from raising a local property tax rate, unless they do so by a two-thirds vote. That’s the same idea as ALEC’s “Local Taxpayer Protection Act.”
Look closely and you start to see ALEC’s fingerprints all over the Florida Capitol. Like legislation to unleash fintech payday lenders that mirrors to ALEC’s “Earned Wage Access Act.” Or a buck-passing memorial urging Congress to focus on foreign sources of pollution that’s nearly a carbon copy of a resolution that ALEC has drafted.
(Of course, it’s not like ALEC is the only anti-worker think tank writing bills for Florida lawmakers this session.)
Meanwhile, across the Capitol, the ascending leader is Sen. Ben Albritton (R-Wauchula), who will become Senate president after this year’s elections. Which brings us to Question 4:
How much power does Big Ag have right now?
Albritton comes from an old citrus family, and he’s always been closely aligned with agricultural interests.
When he ran for speaker of the state House more than a decade ago — a race Albritton lost to Richard Corcoran, the same guy who is now the grotesquely overpaid president of New College of Florida — the biggest funders of his leadership bid included the sugar, citrus and fertilizer industries. Over the years, he’s sponsored everything from tax breaks for slaughterhouses and packinghouses to a bill that could have helped the sugar industry in a battle for the water in Lake Okeechobee (had Gov. Ron DeSantis not vetoed it, that is).
And Albritton has promised to focus on agriculture during his tenure atop the Senate.
What could that mean this year? Well, for starters, agribusinesses want to stop local communities from restricting fertilizer use during rainy seasons. There’s also an effort to ban the sale of lab-grown meat in Florida — which would protect the state’s beef industry from a potential source of competition. And farming and construction lobbyists are teaming up on legislation that would crush a campaign in Miami-Dade County to provide basic heat protections for outdoor workers.
The ag industry is also lobbying for a bill that would make it easier to build housing for migrant farmworkers — something that may prove a tough sell in a state Legislature that has become almost proudly xenophobic and anti-immigrant in recent years.
Meanwhile, the Legislature may spend tens of millions of dollars developing artificial intelligence and other tools to support agriculture — including tech to help quantify potential future subsidies for farming operations, which could be paid out as compensation for ancillary ecological benefits like groundwater recharge, habitat preservation, and carbon sequestration.
And still lurking in the weeds is that battle over the water in Lake Okeechobee, which the sugar industry relies on for irrigation, but which is also needed to restore the natural freshwater flow of the Everglades. For my money, the most interesting budget request filed so far is a $5 million earmark for Florida Gulf Coast University to study Lake Okeechobee — with an ultimate goal of proposing new water-level management strategies for the lake.