The Sunshine Economy: Talking Water, Transit, and Aid For Venezuela on Capitol Hill

Mar 19, 2019

Lake Okeechobee may be a natural feature of the Florida landscape, but politics also come into play when it comes to it.

 

More than $1 billion of federal support has been spent to help restore the Everglades and fix the plumbing around the lake. That money, along with other money for the Army Corps of Engineers, starts flowing from the House Appropriations Committee.

So does federal money for transportation projects — like the money Miami Dade County hopes to secure to help untangle traffic. Already, the county is moving forward with a $240 million plan to bring bus rapid transit along the South Dade Busway, running parallel with U.S. 1. The county hopes federal funding will cover about half of the tab.

Water and transportation are just two of the big issues facing South Florida and the regional economy with significant financial firepower from the federal government.

WLRN spoke about these pressing topics with two South Florida members of Congress — one Republican and one Democrat — sitting on one of the most powerful committees in the House of Representatives: the Appropriations Committee. Rep. Lois Frankel and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart also are playing leading roles in the U.S. response to the crisis in Venezeula.

Lake Okeechobee

The last time Lake Okeechobee was as low as it is during this time of year was in 2011. Water restrictions were put in place back then as the lake dropped to about 12 feet in March. By June it was below 10 feet. There were limits for watering lawns and golf courses. Farms and nurseries had to cut back on their water use. The restrictions stayed in place for more than six months until heavy rains in October helped fill up the lake.

The 2011 drought wasn't as bad as 2007. Lois Frankel was mayor of West Palm Beach at that time. "The worst days of my mayorship was when West Palm Beach was about to run out of water and I am not exaggerating," she says.

A bird flies past a boat ramp where algae collects at the shore of a canal along Lake Okeechobee, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Clewiston, Fla.
Credit AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

The US Army Corps of Engineers has been lowering the level of Lake Okeechobee by letting out water to the west, east and south in hopes of reducing the possibility of having to open its gates wide this summer and releasing algae-filled water to sensitive ecosystems. Over two of the past three summers that soupy, stinky, blue-green algae has choked waterways on the east and west coasts of Florida where canals dump polluted lake water.

Republican Rep. Brian Mast, who represents the area where the polluted lake water enters the St. Lucie estuary, wants the Corps to bring the lake level down to 10.5 feet before the wet season. The idea has the support of Gov. Ron DeSantis. County commissioners in Broward and Palm Beach counties have criticized the idea because the threat it could pose to areas needing water and drinking water.

"My local folks think that could possibly be catastrophic," says Frankel. "I understand the concerns of folks who live in Martin County. They're trying to avoid the algae breakout that has hurt their water supply and their economy. But solving one problem and creating a greater problem is not the way to go."

This debate comes as President Trump has proposed spending $63 million on the Everglades next year -- far less than the $200 million Gov. DeSantis and others were hoping for from the federal government. Frankel calls the president's spending plan "a nonstarter" in Congress. "I see a very, very strong effort in the House to up our funding to get this Everglades restoration done."

Transportation

Mario Diaz-Balart was the chairman of the House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee for four years before Republicans lost control of the House in 2018. He calls that tenure a "squandered opportunity" for local transportation projects looking for federal funding. "One of my frustrations is that in all these years that I chaired (the subcommittee), not once did a transit project from Miami-Dade County reach us," he says.

Miami-Dade County is asking for about $100 million to help pay to build bus rapid transit along the South Dade Busway. That’s the first of the county’s six SMART plan public transit routes it wants to build. In December, the county’s transportation board okayed the idea to build an elevated rail line along Northwest 27th Avenue to the Broward County line, but the design and funding still have to be worked out.

While Diaz-Balart says he's "very happy" about the bus rapid transit project, he said "I would have liked it to have been done years ago."

He's noncommittal on the funding environment for such projects now, as he is the ranking member of the subcommittee. He claims he could have found "$200 to $300 million" when he was chairman. "There's a big difference between being chairman and ranking member."

Venezeula

There are at least four separate bills Democrats have introduced in Congress dealing with the crisis in Venezuela. Many of them have bi-partisan sponsorship. They range from extending temporary protection status to Venezuelans immigrating to America, to a seven-fold increase in humanitarian aid provided to Vewnezeulans.

"I have been exceedingly pleased with the policy of this administration," says Diaz-Balart, who has helped shaped the Trump Administration's Venezeulan strategy.

"We have to, in every way possible, put pressure on the Venezuelan government," says Frankel. "I do think the Trump administration is trying to do that."

Both Frankel and Diaz-Balart support temporary protection status fo Venezuelans and increasing U.S. aid to $150 million a year for two years.