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Big Sugar Contributes Heavily
Industry wants a say in writing farm, environmental bills
By Bob Franken/CNN
WASHINGTON (Oct. 7) -- Machines harvest almost all Florida sugar cane these days. Gone are the field workers and their machetes.
But when Big Sugar wants to influence government policy, it still does it the old-fashioned way: By handing out lots of campaign money to ensure they have a say in writing agricultural and environmental bills.
"Many of the laws are just special-interest payments by the people who have money," said Dexter Lehtinen, an environmental lawyer.
Last year's sugar victory was Section 156 of the farm bill, which guarantees loans "to processors of domestically grown sugarcane" and provides trade restrictions on imported sugar.
One congressman's staff member called it a "bloody fight" keeping the special sugar protections.
No one is required to report the number of meetings between lobbyists and lawmakers. But Capitol Hill sources tell CNN sugar lobbyists conducted "hundreds of meetings" with key House and Senate members in the months leading up to the vote.
In the 1996 federal elections alone, the sugar industry gave $2.8 million to its friends, proving that in politics, nothing is sweeter than campaign money.
On the losing side was a coalition of consumer groups, environmentalists, and the makers of candy and other sweets. They gave about half as much.
They complain the current program costs consumers approximately $1.5 billion each year in higher prices, money that goes right into the hands of sugar companies.
It's a perk supporters fight fiercely to protect.
"The theory since 1981 is it would be advantageous to have a maximum degree of predictabilty in sugar prices," says Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.)
So what does that mean? Prices are kept artificially high through restrictions on imports. Domestic growers and refiners spend big money playing "sugar daddy," cultivating a crop of supporters on both sides of the political field.
Two major players are the Fanjul brothers, Cuban immigrants and owners of Flo-Sun, Inc., a major sugar corporation. In 1996, they sweetened the political pot, spending more than a half million dollars. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, their donations totaled $560,499.
Government figures show the Fanjuls benefit from the sugar policy to the tune of $65 million each year.
The brothers were unavailable for comment, very private despite their very public friends. Alfonso Fanjul served as president Clinton's 1996 Florida finance chairman. Brother Jose was vice chairman of finance for Bob Dole's 1996 election campaign.
And then there are their enemies. Republican congressman Dan Miller twice tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the sugar subsidies.
"Actually, sugar went to my district last year," Miller said. "It was offering up to a half million dollars in independent expenses if a serious candidate would run against me."
The industry says it has no choice but to spend money to counter aggressive opposition.
"We are vastly outnumbered," Robert Bucker, executive vice president of U.S. Sugar. "The people giving the figures of our contributions neglect to add up the ones of our opponents."
So both sides spend big to ensure they are at the table when bills affecting their interests are written, and that often reduces important policy decisions to little more than an unrefined battle of bucks.
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