U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson voted down a measure that would cut subsidies to Big Sugar. (Photo from NASA.)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Last week, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio voted down a measure that would have cut subsidies to Florida’s lucrative sugar industry.

Big Sugar is a big donor to political campaigns all over the country — but especially in Florida, where some of the biggest sugar companies are based. The Fanjul family owns Flo-Sun, based in West Palm Beach, and  U.S. Sugar Corp., based in in Clewiston. Together they are the two largest producers of raw cane sugar in the country.

According to campaign finance research compiled by Maplight, sugar is among the biggest contributors to U.S. House and Senate members from the agribusiness industry. From January 1, 2001, to June 30, 2011, sugar contributed $10.4 million to members of congress.

This kind of influence explains why both Nelson and Rubio — who rarely vote alike — voted against the measure.

The Tampa Bay Times reported this week:

The Wall Street Journal editorial page blasted Rubio and 15 other Republicans who voted to table Sen. Pat Toomey’s reform bill.

“The usual sugar beet and sugar cane state suspects dominate the list, but one name leaps out—Mr. Rubio, the freshman from Florida who won his seat in 2010 while running as a tea party favorite in opposition to the crony capitalism and government meddling of the Obama Administration,” the Journal writes. “Mr. Rubio nonetheless voted against consumers and for the big sugar-cane producers, including Florida’s Fanjul family. Mr. Rubio thus voted to the left of the 16 Democrats who joined 30 Republicans in supporting sugar reform. Unlike Mr. DeMint, the Floridian was not a profile in courage on this issue, or even a profile …”

Rubio in his new book, An American Son, writes about the financial help the Fanjuls provided to his 2010 Senate campaign as it began to take off:

“The Fanjuls suggested I spend Labor Day weekend in the Hamptons, where many of their friends and major Republican donors would spend the holiday,” Rubio wrote. “Jeanette and I stayed in Mark Gerson’s guesthouse. On Sunday night, Pepe and Emilia Fanjul hosted a dinner for us on their boat, and they invited former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Rudy stayed for the entire dinner, and afterward we talked about my campaign. He wasn’t ready to endorse me yet, but he was intrigued. There was no love lost between Rudy and Charlie Crist.”

Proponents of continued federal financial support for the sugar industry say that thousands of jobs in Florida depend on the money allotted to the businesses from the U.S. Farm Bill. Proponents also claim that consumers in the United States are saving billions every year because of the subsidies.

However, the Orlando Sentinel reported:

Critics in Congress and elsewhere say the program artificially raises sugar prices — sometimes to nearly double the world market price — while fouling Florida waters with phosphorous-laden fertilizers.

The program over many years has raised consumer prices, though the per-person impact is tiny when spread among millions of shoppers.

Consumer advocates — citing a study last year by agriculture economic experts at Iowa State University — estimate that ending price supports would save consumers $3.5 billion a year.

The cost is largely hidden because it may amount to a few cents per shopping trip. The Iowa State study estimated that the sugar program costs the average consumer $9 to $11 per year, or about $40 for a family of four.

Big Sugar hasn’t just swung votes in Congress with campaign cash, it has also swung elections. One example: according to a 2006 article in the Tampa Bay Times, “Big Sugar has helped Rod Smith’s bid for governor in a big way.”

A political group formed to promote Smith’s candidacy received $295,000 from U.S. Sugar Corp. of Clewiston and its subsidiaries, according to federal tax records.

The contributions to Floridians for Responsible Government paid for a statewide direct mail effort touting Smith as a candidate with “experience, vision, guts.”

The industry has also used its financial largess to fund lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C. According to Open Secrets, Big Sugar has so far spent $2.1 million lobbying congress in 2012.