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The "Voice of Florida Business" is the voice of six Florida businesses
The big companies behind Associated Industries of Florida's campaign spending — and the complications they pose for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
This is Seeking Rents, a newsletter devoted to producing original journalism — and lifting up the journalism of others — that examines the many ways that businesses influence public policy across Florida, written by Jason Garcia.
Halfway through this year’s legislative session, the Florida Senate suddenly introduced a bill that threatened to upend future plans to manage the water in Lake Okeechobee, the giant lake that once fed all of its freshwater into the Florida Everglades but which today serves as a source of irrigation for the sugar industry.
The Senate held one – and only one – public hearing on the bill (SB 2508), and it drew an absolute avalanche of opposition. A parade of fishermen and environmentalists accused senators of prioritizing Florida’s big sugar companies over communities along the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers, which suffer through ugly toxic algae blooms when Lake Okeechobee gets too full and must be flushed all at once, and the Everglades, which is in desperate need of more freshwater from the lake.
About 40 minutes in – just moments after a fisherman from Charlotte County told senators that “you care more for the sugar industry than you do for those who keep the tourists coming here” – a lobbyist for the group Associated Industries of Florida strode to the podium to thank those same senators.
The legislation “is crucial to businesses who are permitted existing legal users” of Lake Okeechobee water, said AIF lobbyist Adam Basford, using the language of the sugar industry.
Though Basford was publicly testifying on behalf of Associated Industries, the lobbyist was ultimately representing the interests of sugar growers Florida Crystals Corp. and U.S. Sugar Corp. – two members of a very small network of very big businesses that together finance nearly all of AIF’s political spending (the publicly disclosed political spending, at least).
Since 2019, campaign-finance records show that Associated Industries of Florida has spent about $26 million on Florida elections through five political committees controlled by AIF executives.
More than 80 percent of that money has come from just six companies: Florida Crystals ($6.7 million) and U.S. Sugar ($4.5 million); for-profit hospital operator HCA Healthcare Inc. ($4.9 million); electric utility Florida Power & Light ($2.3 million); theme-park owner/current Republican rhetorical whipping boy Walt Disney World ($2 million); and health insurer Florida Blue ($1.3 million).
AIF bills itself as “The Voice of Florida Business.” It might be more accurately described as the voice of six Florida businesses.
The companies that rule Tallahassee
Florida Crystals, U.S. Sugar, HCA, FPL, Disney and Florida Blue – that’s basically an inner-circle Hall of Fame of the companies that rule Tallahassee. Their influence can be seen all over the just-concluded 2022 legislative session.
The sugar companies ultimately got SB 2508 passed, though it was pared back significantly (more on that in a bit). But that’s not all. Lawmakers also passed a bill allowing citrus growers to use more fertilizer (U.S. Sugar has more than 6,600 acres of citrus trees), and budgeted millions for projects important to the two companies, including a water-storage reservoir run by a business co-owned Florida Crystals and an airport in Clewiston that is being privatized by an investment group that includes U.S. Sugar.
HCA won a years-long battle to eliminate a state fund that subsidizes “safety net” hospitals that treat large proportions of low-income Floridians covered by Medicaid. (HCA hospitals don’t get as much money from this fund as some others, because they tend to be smaller hospitals that don’t treat as many Medicaid patients on a per-location basis.) But HCA was also a lobbying force behind bills that provide more legal immunity from COVID-19-related lawsuits and exempt nurses working in freestanding emergency departments from some laboratory licensing requirements.
Florida Power & Light persuaded the Legislature to pass a law that will hurt its competition from the rooftop solar industry; a tax break that will save FPL an estimated $2.3 million on a “green hydrogen” facility it is building in Okeechobee County; and a fast-track permitting process in which the company will be able to pay state environmental regulators to perform faster reviews of permits FPL needs when it wants to destroy wetlands.
Florida Blue and the rest of the health-insurance industry defeated bills that would have required insurers to cover hearing aids for kids and to provide more support to customers who visit out-of-network doctors – even though both bills were sponsored by Republicans.
And for all the post-session chest-thumping about Disney, Florida’s biggest tourism company walked away from this session with a five-year extension for the tourism-advertising agency Visit Florida – and $50 million a year to fund that advertising.
Not surprisingly, AIF was part of the public lobbying for many of these issues.
Taking sides in turf wars
But you really see the influence of these big donors on AIF’s agenda on issues that pit one of them against some other big-business interest
Take SB 1878, which would have created a big new corporate tax break for television and streaming-video productions. Though the sponsor – Sen. Joe Gruters, the Republican from Sarasota who also chairs the Republican Party of Florida – publicly framed the legislation as an attempt to lure more television productions to Florida, it was really a tax break for Disney (and possibly Universal, too). The legislation was written in such a way that only a very small number of companies would have been able to claim the tax break.
This was potentially a great deal for Disney. But not so much for the rest of the state’s film and television industry, which has been lobbying for separate legislation to resurrect a broader entertainment incentive program – where the tax breaks are available to a much wider array of companies and projects, including small ones.
Everybody publicly claimed to be supporting both bills. But the reality is that there was little chance the Legislature was going to pass two tax breaks for TV and movies. And if Disney gets a specific tax break for itself, what incentive would the company have to continue lobbying in support of the broader program?
Yet despite the poison-pill potential of SB 1878, AIF included the legislation in its list of session priorities and publicly testified in support of it. (Neither bill passed in the end.)
Then there was HB 737, pushed by another big-business lobbying group – the Florida Retail Federation – and gas-station chains like RaceTrac.
The bill was designed to let gas stations and manufacturers compete against electric utility companies like FPL in the business of building charging stations for electric vehicles. It would have done so by forbidding FPL and other investor-owned utilities from making their electricity customers pay for companies’ investments in charging stations. Florida’s utility companies are monopolies, so allowing them to pass charging station construction costs off on ratepayers – who have no choice but to pay up – is an enormous advantage.
The utilities, of course, want to keep this competitive edge. And they used AIF to make their case in public. During a House committee hearing on the bill, only one person testified against HB 737: Basford, the AIF lobbyist.
Investor-owned utilities have “been leading the way in EV development and investment, and they’re the best-suited, really, to continue that moving forward,” Basford told the House Tourism, Infrastructure & Energy Subcommittee. “We believe that this prohibition would slow down that investment.”
“We really hope we can work on this bill and resolve some of these issues as we move forward,” Basford added.
The bill never moved again.
A test for Ron DeSantis
AIF and its money pose a complication for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
After Trumpism, there’s probably nothing more important to the governor’s political brand than his image as the rare Florida politician – from either party – who will stand up to Big Sugar.
This is a guy who trashed his Republican rival during the 2018 gubernatorial primary as the sugar industry’s “errand boy” and won an endorsement from The Everglades Trust over his Democratic opponent during the general election. And while the aspiring presidential candidate is best known today for waging hard-right culture wars, he has consistently supported The Everglades – especially the big reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that Everglades activists love but the sugar industry loathes.
DeSantis doesn’t raise money from the sugar industry. But he does raise money from Associated Industries of Florida. Lots of it.
Since DeSantis was elected, AIF’s political committees have contributed more than $2.1 million to “Friends of Ron DeSantis,” the governor’s fundraising committee. And more than $4 in every $10 spent by those AIF committees came from Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar.
And now AIF wants DeSantis to sign that Lake Okeechobee legislation that’s so important to Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar.
Now, SB 2508 was substantially rewritten before it passed, to accommodate some of the concerns raised by DeSantis and Everglades activists. But the revised bill would still give the Florida Legislature more control over key water-management rules for Lake Okeechobee. That’s a good thing for a sugar industry that, at least for now, has far more influence on the fourth floor of the state Capitol than it does on the first.
Some Everglades groups have begun a veto campaign. But DeSantis sure sounds like he plans to sign it. (It’s worth noting that SB 2508 also includes some other things that are important to big donors – particularly the fast-track wetlands permitting for FPL.)
“It’s much different now,” DeSantis said when asked about SB 2508 during an end-of-session press conference. “I mean, there were things that I was very much opposed to. It’s been changed dramatically. And so I think that the concerns that I had are certainly not as acute.”
But this is a potential powder keg for DeSantis. Especially after he helped the sugar industry out last year by signing SB 88, another controversial bill that gave sugar companies stronger protections against public-health lawsuits over the mass burning they do in their cane fields prior to harvest.
We’ll know the governor’s decision in a few weeks or so. In the meantime, keep an eye out for more money from AIF.