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A Republican lawmaker wants to severely restrict who can get elected to their local soil and water conservation districts, created during the Dust Bowl to help farmers manage their resources.
State Sen. Travis Hutson of Palm Coast originally wanted to eliminate Florida’s 56 soil and water conservation districts (SB 1078).
But he filed a strike-all amendment Friday proposing instead that the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) review each district to see if it’s “administratively practicable and feasible.” Then, if it survives scrutiny, divide them into single-member districts.
Hutson said he wanted to limit the qualifications to people in the agriculture industry because over time people in the agriculture community didn't win elections, and were replaced by folks who didn't have the same focus on farming.
"The goal is to shift back to agriculture and conservation," Hutson said at Monday's hearing before the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, where several people stood up and spoke out against the narrow restrictions on who could qualify.
Opponents say it's the latest attempt to control who sits on these districts, which obtain millions of dollars in grants each year for conservation and water quality programs.
And they say it's an orchestrated measure to clear the districts of the environmentalists and progressive activists who have gotten elected to these powerless, little-known agencies to use as a platform for their views or as stepping stones to city and county commissions.
"I think that's the agenda, to limit the types of people who get on these boards and (not) use it as a platform," said Rob Long, chairman of the Palm Beach County Soil and Water Conservation District, the largest one east of the Mississippi.
Hutson's amendment originally would have required a supervisor to live and own land within the district to which she is elected and “must be actively engaged in the business of farming or animal husbandry.”
But restricting the district supervisors to farmers, ranchers and landowners is tantamount to “Jim Crow” restrictions, says Brian Lee, an environmentalist who also is a member of the Leon County Soil and Water Conservation District.
Hutson’s amendment is “incredibly racist and would absolutely have the effect of diminishing minority representation on SWCD boards,” Lee said.
Before the Civil War, only white men over 21 who owned land could vote. States gradually changed those rules to allow people who didn't own land to vote, but then restored those after the Civil War to disenfranchise Blacks during what was called the "Jim Crow" era.
Bill amended after outcry; critics say not enough
After the constitutionality issue was raised, Hutson introduced a technical amendment that removed land ownership as a requirement. The committee passed the bill as amended with a 5-1 vote.
Sen. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, voted against the measure, saying she wants to see Hutson work on expanding the qualifications to include people who don't necessarily have an agricultural background.
"I know where we are at is very different than where you started," Ausley said. But since she wasn't sure what the language would be for defining who could qualify she couldn't vote for the measure as written.
As amended Monday, the bill would require supervisors to be in the agricultural industry, which opponents say limits who can serve in an ill-guided attempt to get more representation from the agriculture industry.
As Lee put it: "It's still a crappy bill that would change the structure of the (districts) in unnecessary ways, making it more difficult to get elected."
Abolishing the districts would be a huge loss to local water conservation efforts, Long said. "We would lose all these cost-share programs (with FDACS)," Long said.
The money from those programs helps farmers upgrade their irrigation at no cost to them, saving hundreds of millions of gallons of water a year, he said.
To abolish the districts and put their responsibilities under FDACS would cost millions of state tax dollars and require the department to hire 55 new staffers to manage the programs.
The soil and water conservation districts were created in 1937 as an integral part of the state’s soil and water resources, and to help promote “the wise use, management and general conservation of soil, water, and related natural resources,” according to the association’s website.
The districts are “part of the nationwide system that was established in the 1930s in response to the Dust Bowl environmental crisis, when dust storms related to droughts and soil erosion were numerous and severe, especially in the southern Great Plains,” according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS).
More than 3,000 districts exist across the country. “The overall goal of creating (them) was to promote the efficient use of soil and water resources by protecting water quality and preventing floodwater and sediment damage,” according to UF/IFAS.
Jeffrey Schweers is a capital bureau reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida. Contact Schweers at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Florida bill would limit conservation boards, critics compare to 'Jim Crow'