Caldwell didn’t have the answers event sponsors the Responsible Growth Management Coalition, the Coastal and Oceans Coalition and the Clean Water Initiative and everyone from the League of Women Voters to the Estero Council of Community Leaders and the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation wanted to hear, but he did have answers.
Caldwell defended the way the state divided the $742 million expected to be generated through Amendment One, which dedicates a third of doc stamp revenue to buying and caring for land. He said the amendment approved by 75 percent of voters allowed spending on management, restoration and improvement of state land in addition to acquisition, and that supporters had made that clear to the legislature and to the court.
With more than $300 million going for salaries and other like spending, said Rae Ann Wessell of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, it seems the state is illegally supplanting general revenue funding with Amendment One money.
“It’s like a huge shell game,” Wessell said.
From the time developer Hamilton Disston dynamited a connection between the river and the lake in 1881, Caldwell said, the Caloosahatchee has been the drainage valve when the lake rises. Disston’s bankruptcy and suicide were followed by government and private efforts to drain south Florida, efforts that were successful to the tune of millions of new residents.
“It left us with what we all deal with,” Caldwell said. “We are the drain.”
The reason Florida’s southwest coast feels like the dumping ground for the lake, Caldwell said, is because that’s what we are. Caldwell said that numerous smaller projects along the river itself, with work done north of Okeechobee, were the priorities the state funded, and that buying sugar land in the Everglades Agricultural area as the environmental groups demanded would not produce the desired results.
“I’m not opposed to the idea of a flow-way to the south,” he said. “But I want to be cautious about what you think that can achieve. If we condemned every parcel in the EAA and flooded it we’d still have water coming down the Caloosahatchee.”
Caldwell defended the decision by the state and the South Florida Water Management District to not pursue the option on 26,000 U.S. Sugar-owned acres south of the lake. He said pursuing the option would have stopped all the district’s other Everglades restoration projects, including the Kissimmee River work north of the lake meant to reduce the pollutants and the flow into Okeechobee.
“We need to change this (inflow) number,” he said.
Most of the more than 50 people who attended clearly weren’t buying the responses from the man some of them call “Sugar Baby”. Caldwell has taken campaign funding from sugar and other ag interests, and last year took the infamous trip to the King Ranch hunting lodge in Texas on the sugar industry’s dime.
Caldwell did say he would support a new effort to review the huge federal agricultural subsidies sugar companies enjoy, but that all ag subsidies should be examined and that labor laws driving costs should be reviewed as well.
“If you buy only foreign sugar you’re accepting the semi-slave labor standards that produced your sugar,” he said.
Caldwell said that he thinks it’s significant that the Florida’s Water and Land Legacy, which sponsored the amendment, is not the group suing over its implementation. In fact the suit was filed by the Florida Wildlife Federation, St. John’s River keepers and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida. Earth Justice attorneys drafted the suit itself.
He doesn’t cater to so-called Big Sugar, Caldwell said, and he takes his duty to Florida citizens very seriously.
“Some people are very flippant with accusations of oath-breaking,” he said.
Wessell said there’s no way voters meant for the state to spend only $17 million of the $740 million on actual land acquisition.
“That’s not honoring the oath there,” she said.
Caldwell was counter-pointed by Ray Judah of the Florida Coastal & Ocean Coalition. Judah was a Lee County commissioner and a thorn in the side of Big Sugar for 24 years until an estimated $750,000 of sugar-related soft money washed him out of office in 2012.
Judah said the plan the state is following, the Central Everglades Restoration Project or CERP, is flawed because it relies on data from an unusually dry period in Florida history.
“The legislature is firmly committed to moving forward on projects that aren’t going to solve the problems,” he said.
Judah noted the $17 million headed toward actual land acquisition is a mere 2 percent of Amendment One proceeds.
“How can that be considered good faith?” he asked. “I’m going to be nice and say they misinterpreted.”
“The people of the state of Florida didn’t support (money) for salaries and benefits,” he said. “It’s a bait-and-switch to supplant general revenue and then give a $400 million tax break. What a colossal, colossal mistake.”
There have been rumors Caldwell will seek a Florida Senate seat or a Lee County commission seat, but he said he intends to seek re-election to his District 79 State Rep. seat in 2016. His district includes North Fort Myers and Lehigh Acres.