We can only hope Mother Nature treats us better in 2006. For two straight years, Florida growers got hammered by hurricanes.
In the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association’s efforts to secure disaster assistance, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., made December a very busy month.
It seemed simple enough. Through the leadership of Sen. Mel Martinez and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Florida growers had a chance for fair and practical federal assistance to help them recover from 2005’s storms.
FFVA was pretty assertive about how the bills’ language should be worded, all to ensure the best possible opportunity for producers to apply for badly needed assistance, including a system that partially gets around some of the built-in federal limitations that tend to hurt producers of high-value crops.
Thankfully, the staff in the Martinez and Diaz-Balart offices appreciated our input and diligently worked to see it through the legislative process.
But since this was an emergency need, and happening just days before lawmakers were to return home for Christmas, the process was accelerated and even a bit frantic. Staff in the Senate and House appropriations committees didn’t volunteer much information when we initially asked them about Florida’s hurricane bills.
In one meeting I attended, there seemed to be a few times when nobody said anything for several seconds — making the atmosphere a bit awkward. I was tempted to break the silence by telling a joke, but decided to keep my game face on.
In subsequent meetings, we helped educate appropriations staff and staff for the committee chairs about the critical needs of Florida producers. The evidence was there, and Florida’s congressional delegation was almost unanimously in support of the bills.
One sticking point — staff reportedly wanted to use a cookie cutter approach to rewriting the assistance package (probably reported out of the conference committee that settles differences between Senate and House bills). This approach would discard all the carefully crafted language in the original bills and make the whole effort less useful for Florida growers.
I’m certain that several key staff on Capitol Hill were tired of seeing us or getting e-mails and phone calls from FFVA asking about the status of the wording, but we had no choice.
And then there was Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who was reported to have camped out on Capitol Hill or the White House during a few days of December. Barbour, who had every right to be asking for money to help his state recover from Hurricane Katrina, enjoyed several political advantages. He is a career-long Republican leader, having served two terms as Republican National committee, served the president in various leadership roles, and now as Mississippi’s governor. He’s also a good friend of Sen. Thad Chochran, who just happens to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Gov. Bush, who also knows people in Washington, D.C., made a call or two on our behalf to make sure Florida wasn’t forgotten.
So, while there was plenty of political clout and genuine need behind getting money for Gulf States hit by Katrina, we couldn’t let lawmakers forget about Florida — and there was a real chance that could happen.
At the time I write this column, we still don’t know what happened with this important legislation, but we have tremendous gratitude to all who helped us in the effort.
Ray Gilmer is the director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, (321) 214-5200. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.