Scott defends veto of money for citrus research

BONITA SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) — Gov. Rick Scott defended his veto of $2 million for citrus disease research to a meeting of the state's growers Wednesday, saying there are other sources for it within the industry.

Growers had lobbied hard for the state money for research into citrus greening, a bacterial disease that could devastate commercial citrus growing in Florida. The veto forced the state citrus commission to shift money from its critical marketing budget and other sources to help pay for research.

Scott said he had tough decisions to make when it came to line-item vetoes in his first state budget. He acknowledged that he still didn't know a lot about the citrus industry but promised growers he would "get up to the speed" on the greening issue.

"It's really just a matter of trying to allocate the dollars as well as you can and trying to pick projects where you think you're going to get the biggest return," he told reporters afterward. "My understanding was that there was other funding for greening, but I'm going to continue to look at that because I know it's an issue for the industry."

Scott also took on another issue that is the talk of the growers' annual meeting this week — a bill that made major changes to the citrus code and industry-governing Florida Citrus Commission.

Growers groups had vehemently urged Scott to veto the bill, which they say was pushed through by state Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, in the last week of the legislative session without proper vetting by the industry. Alexander, however, says the industry was aware of the bill before it was passed.

Among other things, the bill includes a cap on state per-box citrus taxes, which fund the marketing activities of the Florida Department of Citrus, and increases legislative oversight of the department and its $54.7 million budget. It also reduces the number of commissioners from 12 to nine and ends their terms July 1 so Scott can appoint his own commissioners. Critics have complained that the restructuring reduces growers' representation on the board.

On Tuesday, Scott reappointed five of the current commissioners and two new ones, including Michael W. Haycock, vice president of operations for Tropicana Products.

Reacting to growers' questions Wednesday, Scott said he and Alexander are willing to sit down with industry representatives to hear their concerns about the bill and other issues.

"(The bill) made progress on where the citrus commission should go, but there are always areas where you can improve," Scott said.

Commissioner Martin McKenna, one of the commissioners reappointed by Scott, acknowledged that flap over the bill the last month "hasn't been pleasant."

"I think it's had the impact of drawing our industry closer together," said commissioner Jesse "Jay" Clark, who was also reappointed by Scott. "We realize the significance and importance of being united and having a voice in Tallahassee with our political leaders up there. We like to talk in one single voice in Tallahassee, so I hope the impact draws us closer together."

The Florida citrus industry says it employs nearly 76,000 people, creating a $9 billion annual economic impact. Citrus growing covers about 875 square miles in the state.

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