Florida Legislature agrees to pay millions for lost citrus

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida legislators have agreed to pay millions to homeowners in two counties whose healthy citrus trees were torn down in a failed attempt to eradicate citrus canker.

Republicans on Wednesday announced that as part of a secret budget deal they would set aside $37.4 million on behalf of homeowners in Broward and Lee counties.

But the money won’t cover homeowners in Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach counties who have also sued the state over lost citrus trees.

The Florida House initially proposed paying homeowners in Palm Beach County, but that county was dropped during closed-door negotiations.

“We couldn’t afford to pay all three of them,” said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican and House budget chairman.

Trujillo said that legislators decided to pay off claims related to the two oldest outstanding lawsuits. He noted that the first lawsuit was filed before he first ran for office.

Gov. Rick Scott, however, could still block the payments. Scott, upset that legislators did not set aside money for his top priorities, has hinted that may veto the entire budget.

Canker is a bacterial disease that blemishes a tree’s fruit and can cause it to drop prematurely, although fruit that ripens can still be squeezed for juice – the primary use of Florida’s commercial citrus crop. After a 53-year lull, canker reappeared in Florida in 1986 and was spread by the wind.

A last-ditch attempt to protect Florida’s $9 billion dollar citrus industry from widespread contamination began in 2000, as the state ordered the destruction of even healthy citrus trees within 1,900 feet of an infected tree with or without the owner’s permission. More than 16 million trees were destroyed statewide during the six-year program, including 865,000 residential trees, before a series of hurricanes spread canker too widely to be eradicated.

For compensation, the state gave each homeowner a $100 Wal-Mart gift card for the first tree killed and $55 cash for each subsequent tree, but thousands complained their trees were worth much more. Homeowners filed class-action lawsuits against the state.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has opposed settling the lawsuits now. He said in April that “for the sake of fairness” the state should not pay anything until the court cases reach the state Supreme Court, adding the “courts have ordered wildly different amounts of compensation to the homeowners.”