What Red Cross knew

Where’s our Red Cross when we need him?

To the extent that anybody remembers J. Emory Cross these days it is because that Gainesville-base state legislator birthed Florida’s Sunshine Law in 1967.

That is of course a fine legacy. Less well known is Red Cross’ long-running fight to tax exploiters of Florida’s natural resources.

“I found that the phosphate industry was tax free and it was producing I believe, 75 percent of all phosphate produced” in the US, Cross recalled in a 1978 UF Oral History interview. “It was polluting the air and not reclaiming any land back then. So I just felt that it was unfair to let them go free without paying some part of the tax burden.

“Of course I found out that I had jumped on a sacred cow, sure enough.”

For his trouble Cross made powerful enemies like Associated Industries and Dupont robber baron Ed Ball. “We used to kid each other up there,” he said of the lobbyists who lined up against him. “I would tell them ‘you fellows ought to cut me in. I keep you in a job.'”

Cross’ dogged campaign to impose an excise tax on mineral extraction ultimately caught up with him. “I was fortunate to survive as long as I did, sixteen years, because they fought me every time. They would put money against me every time trying to defeat me. What saved me was the well informed people” of Gainesville.

But then his university city-dominated district was sliced up to include several rural counties. Cross was defeated by oil-gas distributor Bob Saunders, who offended no special interest and enjoyed an unremarkable Senate career.

Still, a new governor named Reuben Askew finally did get that tax on phosphate, using the money to reclaim old strip mines that looked like lunar landscapes.

Red Cross’ other legacy is worth recalling only because there remain so few Florida politicians who are willing to take on the polluters that they are practically an extinct species.

Which is precisely why Nestle thinks it can pour a million gallons of Florida spring water a day into little plastic bottles and pay next to nothing for the privilege. It is why Lake Okeechobee is a giant cesspool. It’s why red tides and green algae blooms and bacteria beach closings are the new normal.

To the extent that our politicians are even willing to address water pollution they tend to do it from the wrong end – spending public money to try to clean up the mess after the fact. Stopping pollution at its source might require higher user fees or stricter regulations, which risk getting on the wrong side of Big Sugar, Associated Industries, the Chamber of Commerce and all of the others who profit from treating Florida’s water like dirt.

And, really, I don’t blame them. Politicians tend to follow the money, and the smart money banks on dirty water.

No, I blame the rest of us. We keep electing and reelecting the very people who do the bidding of the polluters. We’re stupid that way. Otherwise we would have thrown the rascals out by now.

Where’s our Red Cross when we need him? He’s probably that candidate who keeps losing to better-funded, better-connected incumbents and party hacks because we voters simply refuse to make the logical connection between dirty water and dirty politics.

That’s why we get the government we deserve. And isn’t that a dirty shame?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at https://floridavelocipede.com.

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