Lugar Says He’ll Propose Sugar Cleanup Fee
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Florida sugar cane growers would have to pay a special fee on their crop to restore the Everglades and surrounding areas, under a proposal announced Friday by Sen. Dick Lugar, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Lugar, also a presidential candidate who faces an important straw poll in Florida next month, said the proposal would force growers to pay for environmental damage inflicted in part by a ``very, very wealthy sugar program.″
Lugar, R-Ind., has long criticized the government sugar program and once proposed ending it. His committee’s and the House version of budget-balancing legislation left the program intact, however, because of the sugar lobby’s strong influence. Critics of the sugar program say the Lugar proposal will simply provide inexpensive political cover to keep the program alive.
Lugar said the tax of 2 cents a pound on sugar would raise $350 million over five years, the amount needed to buy 131,574 acres of land that could absorb excess water that builds up due to drainage of other land for farming. The environmentally sensitive land includes about 32,000 acres owned by Talisman Sugar Co.
Government-supported drainage and the federal sugar program have ``largely caused″ the collapse of the Everglades ecosystem and contributed to flooding last week in Palm Beach and other populated areas of South Florida, Lugar said.
``Given the fact that we are going to be having a very, very wealthy sugar program for seven years, I find it important as chairman of the Agriculture Committee to consider at least appropriate ways in which a portion of a monopoly profit might be used for the benefit of the rest of the people of Florida,″ Lugar said.
The government sugar program supports prices at 18 cents a pound through loans, import restrictions and domestic production quotas. The sugar industry has agreed to a reform that would end the domestic quotas but keep import protections and price supports.
Critics say consumers pay an invisible tax through higher sugar prices. Defenders say retail sugar prices are among the world’s lowest, while candy makers and other users want to increase their profits with cut-rate sugar.
Lugar said the idea was presented to him privately by members of Congress from Florida. He did not say how much support he had, nor exactly when he would offer the proposal.
Environmentalists also pushed the tax after it became clear that the sugar program would not be repealed or dramatically overhauled in Congress.
The American Sugar Alliance, the sugar industry’s lobbying group, said it opposed the tax because the industry is already paying to clean up pollution under a previous agreement. ``It is not appropriate to modify a national program to penalize one state,″ said Luther Markwart, chairman.
Aides said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said he welcomed Lugar’s decision to call attention to the issue but had not settled on financing. ``While Sen. Graham is considering that option there is a wide range of other options that we’re considering too,″ said Julia Hathaway, an aide who deals with the issue.
She said the issue is touchy with sugar growers because it comes so quickly on the heels of a 1994 agreement to cut fertilizer pollution in Florida waterways. The new proposal, which furthers the initial cleanup effort, came up because the land is available.
Rep. Dan Miller, R-Fla., a leading critic of sugar programs, called the proposal a sham.
``It gives political cover to people who want an excuse to prop up the sugar growers,″ said Miller’s spokeswoman, Liz Tobias. ``It’s too bad they’re using the Everglades as a shield.″