Florida may drop a long-running legal battle and instead agree to pay millions to homeowners across the state whose healthy citrus trees were torn down in a failed attempt to eradicate citrus canker.
House Republicans have agreed to spend $66 million to end lawsuits filed on behalf of homeowners in Broward, Lee and Palm Beach counties. There are also lawsuits that were filed in both Orange and Miami-Dade counties that could eventually push up the cost even more.
Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a House budget chairman, defended making the payments now because lower courts have already ruled against the state in several counties. The House has included the money in its proposed $81.2 billion budget that will be voted on next week.
"We should pay a judgment that has been levied against us," Trujillo said. "Just kicking the can down the road for the next legislature is probably not the best idea."
The House move to pay off the lawsuits now runs counter to a suggestion from Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
Putnam said in a statement this week that "for the sake of fairness" he has maintained that 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." Since 2011 Putnam's office has spent at least $3.17 million with private attorneys to defend the state in the litigation.
The Senate— which is working on a rival budget — so far has not agreed to go along with the payment. Sen. Rob Bradley, a north Florida Republican who oversees the budget committee responsible for spending on agricultural issues, said he was surprised that the House had proposed paying off the lawsuits now. But he said he was open to discussing the payments with the House.
"It's certainly a liability that is hanging over the state of Florida," Bradley said.
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 Walmart gift card for the first tree killed and $55 cash for each subsequent tree, but thousands complained their trees were worth much more.
Class-action lawsuits were filed and courts agreed. Judges ordered homeowners in Broward, Lee, Orange and Palm Beach counties to be fully compensated. Those rulings total about $100 million and a Miami-Dade County case that remains open could double that. Part of the judgments include payments to the law firms that filed the lawsuits.