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Florida Citrus Commission pledges to cover research shortfall from legislative vetoes

by Chip Carter | June 08, 2010
BONITA SPRINGS, FL -- Promising to rob Peter to pay Paul if necessary, the Florida Citrus Commission voted June 9 to add an additional $2.8 million to the Florida Department of Citrus' 2010-11 budget to cover a shortfall created by recent vetoes of legislation that would have increased funding for citrus disease research.

The proposed budget was $53.8 million, down $3.1 million from FY 2009- 10; the approved amended total for FY 2010-11 stands at $56.6 million.

If revenues raised from the industry’s self-assessed box tax do not appear adequate to cover the increase when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s orange crop estimates are released in October, the commission will revisit ways of covering the shortfall -- including a box tax increase of 1.6 cents.

Florida citrus growers recently approved a three-cent hike in the box tax, soliciting a pledge from the commission that there would be no future increases in the short-term. Legislative vetoes, however, created an unanticipated $3 million deficit in research revenues.

The industry’s non-profit Citrus Research & Development Foundation was left in the lurch in May when Florida Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed HB 981, a measure that would have codified the foundation, which serves as ground zero in the industry’s fight against HLB, or citrus greening, a disease that threatens the viability of the Florida citrus industry.

HLB can destroy entire groves in two-to-three years and has been found in every citrus-producing county in the state. HB 981 would have provided about $2 million towards research efforts.

In early June, Gov. Crist sliced another $1 million slated for the foundation’s citrus greening research program from the state budget. Florida citrus growers would have been required to match the $1 million appropriation with $1.5 million of their own money.

The commission held its annual meeting June 9 on the opening day of the Florida Citrus Industry annual conference at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort here.

Earlier in the day, Florida Citrus Mutual, acting on the recommendation of its executive committee, which met earlier in the week, proposed the shortfall be covered in part by dipping further into the industry’s marketing budget.

Last year’s television and on-line advertising campaign was slashed in half to $1.6 million to help fund research against HLB, which is unanimously considered an immediate threat to the industry’s health. Mutual is the state’s largest citrus grower organization, representing nearly 8,000 grower members.

In an appeal to both boards, Dan Gunter, head of the foundation, said that there are 131 currently funded research efforts in the fight against HLB. Chopping $3 million from programs that CRDF had planned before the governor’s vetoes would have significantly hindered research.

"All 131 projects will contribute to our stock of knowledge," Dr. Gunter told the commission. "To just lop off the bottom 10 would be unfair, and one of those might provide the solution we’re looking for. The solution will probably be a combination of several of the 131 -- and there’s no way to know which one or ones will prove most important. We thought we had funding for a $14 million budget. We can’t submit an unbalanced budget. When we looked last Tuesday [following Gov. Crist’s second veto] it was unbalanced."

Introducing the motion to up the FDOC budget to replace funds lost to the vetoes, District 2 representative Michael Taylor, vice president and general manager for Collier Enterprises in Naples, FL, said, "I think we ought to cover this shortfall now. It’s too important to this industry. We’re going to plug this hole."

Mr. Taylor’s comments elicited applause from a gathered audience of citrus growers. The motion was approved with just two board members opposing.

Michael Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Mutual, said the commission’s actions have "the makings of an increased tax assessment for the growers."

The Florida Citrus Commission serves as a board of directors for the Florida Department of Citrus. Although it is a state agency, department operations are not funded through the state’s general tax revenue fund. The industry pays its own freight via an excise tax on each box of citrus that moves through commercial channels. The commission is responsible for setting the annual box tax rate.

In other news, the commission voted to name District 3 representative and vice chairman George H. Streetman, managing partner of Hogan & Sons, Inc. of Vero Beach, FL, chairman to replace Ben Albritton, who resigned recently ago to seek election to the Florida House of Representatives.

"I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to serve, and will do my dead-level best," Mr. Streetman told the commission. "I have some big shoes to fill."