Scott puts personal politics ahead of Florida families

Last Friday, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed $409 million in projects that were approved by the Legislature as part of the state’s 2017-18 annual budget.

Among the items vetoed was $37.4 million appropriated to pay court-mandated compensation to thousands of families in Broward and Lee counties, arising from the Florida Department of Agriculture’s destruction of their healthy backyard citrus trees under the failed citrus canker eradication program. The Florida Constitution guarantees everyone full compensation when the state takes private property for a public purpose. Florida courts have repeatedly held that the department’s destruction of healthy citrus trees falls within this constitutional protection.

This saga began nearly two decades ago when homeowners in five Florida counties — including Palm Beach — brought class-action lawsuits to recover full compensation for their destroyed private property. In 2015, a Palm Beach County court awarded $23.6 million in compensation to 26,000 families whose healthy trees were destroyed. Courts in Broward, Lee and Orange counties also made awards to affected families. The Agriculture Department’s appeals were rejected.

The total amount due to 110,000 Florida families now exceeds $100 million, with $4.7 million in interest accruing each year.

Two weeks ago, the Legislature took the first step toward paying these families their constitutionally guaranteed compensation. Although an appropriation covering all four counties was requested, the Legislature appropriated $37.4 million this year to pay 70,000 families in Broward and Lee counties. Payment to 44,000 families in Palm Beach and Orange counties was expected next year.

So why did Scott exercise his veto pen? He based his decision on Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s misleading claim that “litigation is ongoing.” But that’s not accurate. The lawsuits in Palm Beach, Broward, Lee and Orange counties are over. All that remains is to pay the amounts due to those counties’ families.

In reality, Scott vetoed this appropriation to advance his own political agenda. He decided it was more important to appropriate $75 million to the state’s tourism marketing agency than to pay thousands of Florida families the compensation guaranteed under Florida’s constitution.

Editor’s note: Bobby Gilbert, an attorney, represents families in class-action lawsuits to recover full compensation following the state’s destruction of more than 500,000 healthy, uninfected residential citrus trees under the citrus canker eradication program.