A Full Docket To Discuss And Decide

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FFVA’s board of directors and committees kicked off the year at their January meetings with a look at the most pressing issues facing the grower community. Federal crop disaster programs and the transition to new leadership at the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services topped the board agenda at the meeting in Orlando.

Mike Joyner, assistant commissioner of agriculture, told the board that energy and water will be a major focus for Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. As Putnam assembled his leadership team, Joyner said, he looked at “common themes and threads” for the most effective division structure.

Eye On Immigration

Meeting with the Government Relations Committee, state Sen. Gary Siplin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, pledged to work with Florida’s fruit and vegetable producers on their priority issues. Siplin stressed that, along with Gov. Rick Scott, he wants to see jobs created. Among other topics, members of the committee discussed concerns over the immigration bills that have been introduced in the legislature. Several said they were concerned that not only do such measures not create jobs, immigration enforcement efforts would be costly at a time when our financially strained state can least afford it.
“On immigration, agriculture has always stepped up to the plate to propose solutions,” FFVA President Mike Stuart told the Democratic senator from Orlando. “We have tried as hard as we could at the federal level to find a bipartisan solution. It would be tragic to have industry penalized at the state level … to see efforts get so aggressive that we end up without a workforce.”
 
One of the several immigration bills that have been proposed is an Arizona-style bill introduced by Sen. Mike Bennett, a Bradenton Republican. It would authorize law enforcement officers with “reasonable suspicion” to try to determine the legal status of anyone pulled over in a routine traffic stop. Another has been introduced by Rep. Bill Snyder, a Republican from Stuart who is running for Martin County sheriff instead of seeking another term. At the behest of Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a series of three fact-based hearings were held in January and February at which experts testified about what such a law would mean for the Sunshine State. Meanwhile, the Arizona bill has been blocked by a federal court and is under appeal.

Lingering Doubts

Interestingly, in the weeks after filing his bill, Bennett expressed doubt that it will pass. In fact, he told a reporter he wasn’t sure he would even vote for the measure himself. Critics have legitimate concerns about whether an enforcement law would lead to racial profiling.
 
Snyder, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is determined to move his bill forward, saying the debate is important for Florida. His draft bill also would require companies to use E-Verify in hiring new employees.
 
The need for a legal, foreign-born, low-skilled workforce isn’t unique to agriculture, nor is it unique to Florida. The three pillars of Florida’s economy (tourism/hospitality, agriculture, and construction) all are affected by this issue, and it needs to be solved at the federal level.
 
Agriculture has worked hard to help develop and propose bipartisan, reasonable solutions, including the AgJOBS bill. Despite long-term bipartisan support for AgJOBS, critical mass to get it passed has come up short. And, despite a mention of immigration reform in President Obama’s State of the Union Address, it doesn’t look like Congress will be dealing with the issue anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean we stop working on it.

Lisa Lochridge is the director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association and president of the Agriculture Institute of Florida.

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