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Conciliatory Florida governor meets citrus commission, apologizes for budget cuts

by Chip Carter | June 15, 2011

BONITA SPRINGS, FL -- Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who took office in January, has not made many friends in the Florida citrus industry in his short tenure, but he confronted some of those he has crossed at an invitation-only luncheon of grower-shippers June 15 at the Florida Citrus Conference at the Hyatt Coconut Point Resort, here.

Sparks were expected to fly at the luncheon after recent legislative maneuvers that had a negative impact the state’s citrus industry. On May 26, the governor vetoed a $2 million appropriation for citrus greening research that would have been paid by citrus growers themselves via a box tax collected on each carton of citrus sold. That same day, he approved a bill that restructured the makeup of the Florida Citrus Commission and Florida Department of Citrus, redrawing district lines and shrinking the number of commissioners to nine from 12. Among other items, that same bill also ends the terms of all currently serving commissioners on July 1 and allows Gov. Scott to appoint the nine who will make up the new board.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott struck a conciliatory tone June 15 at the Florida Citrus Conference after he vetoed $2 million in citrus research funds because he did not understand that the funds were paid by the growers themselves through a box tax on citrus. "This is my first budget," the new governor explained. (Photo by Chip Carter)

Gov. Scott faced those very people as he strode into a conference room at the Hyatt, appearing decidedly nervous as he chose to forego a lectern and stand at the front of the room to address members of the commission, Florida Citrus Mutual, and other assorted growers and industry affiliates.

Typically, there is little media coverage at this event and is mostly limited to trade publications and local newspapers. But with the expected fireworks, a television crew and a flock of reporters from outlets like the Associated Press and Tampa Tribune joined the rank and file.

The gathered media were disappointed. Gov. Scott received a cool but polite welcome from the crowd, as Florida Citrus Mutual Chief Executive Officer Michael Sparks and President Vic Story, who also serves as vice chair of the citrus commission, quickly took control of the proceedings.

Gov. Scott was conciliatory from the start.

“I just got back from Canada, and the first thing they all say is, ‘We love your juice,’” he said, adding, “Your business is important to our state. We need jobs… [and] you generate a lot of jobs.”

Mr. Sparks interjected, “76,000 jobs and $9 billion, but who’s counting?”

Gov. Scott explained that he vetoed the $2 million in research funding because he did not understand that the money came from the growers themselves. “It was my first budget,” he said apologetically. “I will get up to speed on that issue. As much as I would like to say I understand the citrus community, I don’t.”

Apologies out of the way, the Governor tackled immigration -- one of the industry’s more pressing problems. “My position all along has been if someone is in the state illegally, we should be able to ask them. But I don’t want to hurt your business. I will not sign anything that hurts your industry,” he pledged.

Mr. Sparks took the lead in a question-and-answer session that followed the governor’s brief remarks. Only one audience member, grower Marty McKenna, who serves on Mutual’s executive board and has been named by Gov. Scott to the new commission, asked a question.

“What we need is legal workers,” Mr. McKenna said, promoting a guest worker program that would not tax U.S. infrastructure. “I trust we have that in common?”

“If the [federal government] doesn’t do it, it’s going to put more and more pressure on the states,” Gov. Scott answered. “Another thing that’s going to be catastrophic for you is healthcare -- Obamacare.”

Gov. Scott told growers that they need to be more involved in representing themselves at the state capitol in Tallahassee. “There are thousands of people up there every day” clamoring to be heard, and that state government will likely be slow to respond to the industry’s needs “if you’re not up there and making your voice heard,” he said.

He also recommended that the commission partner with Florida’s trade organization, VisitFlorida, in upcoming promotions.

Gov. Scott summed up the session by telling growers, “I know more than I did a year ago. I have more problems than I did a year ago, and I don’t think any of your jobs are easy.”

Afterward, Mr. Sparks told The Produce News that the governor deserves credit for meeting the industry face to face after he had “blackened both eyes” just days earlier. Now, “the door’s wide open,” Mr. Sparks said. “I intend to follow up on every lead he mentioned.”