Rep. Brian Mast deserves kudos for backing sugar reform

We sometimes wonder if U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, the Republican from Palm City, has a political death wish.

In the wake of the Parkland school shooting, Mast publicly declared he favored a temporary “pause” on new purchases of tactical rifles, including the popular (and deadly) AR-15. That earned him the enmity of many conservatives, including the National Rifle Association, and triggered a primary challenge by physician Mark Freeman.

Now Mast, who is reportedly being considered by President Donald Trump for the position of Veterans Affairs secretary, is demonstrating a willingness to buck another powerful player: the sugar industry.

Late last month, Mast told TCPalm he expects to vote for the Sugar Policy Modernization Act, an amendment to the 2018 Farm Bill which would roll back artificially high U.S. sugar prices by reforming price supports.

Should the measure pass, it could lower prices for consumers and food manufacturers. But the sugar industry fears it would hammer its bottom line.

And it may sour the industry on Mast himself.

“Big Sugar,” is a kingmaker of Florida politics. Between 1994 and 2016, according to The Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times, the industry spent $57.8 million in direct and in-kind contributions to state and local political campaigns.

Most Florida politicians know which side of the bread gets buttered — or sugared — and Sunshine State votes against the industry’s preferred policy objectives are rare.

“I’ll probably be the only representative in the history of this district to vote against the sugar industry,” Mast said.

And it’s true the last time an amendment that would have scaled back the industry’s benefits came up for a vote, in June 2013, Mast’s predecessor — Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy — voted against it.

So did U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, who represents District 8, including Indian River County.

In fact, all but three members of Florida’s congressional delegation (Rep. Ron DeSantis of District 6 and then-Reps. Jeff Miller of District 1 and Bill Young of District 13) voted against the proposed reforms, which failed to pass.

This time around, Mast and DeSantis, now a Republican candidate for governor, have publicly come out in favor of sugar reform. Environmental organizations are pressuring others — including U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — to do the same.

Mast said he’s merely listening to constituents, who question the political sway of the sugar industry and the impact it has on both politics and the environment.

But there’s more to it than this. Mast is a free-market advocate and, like many others in that conservative camp, believes government intervention distorts the market.

Sugar policy is protectionist: the government sets minimum sugar prices and provides loans to sugar farmers, permitting them to repay those loans with raw sugar if prices fall below the legal floor.

Duty-free imports of foreign sugar are limited, and “sugar marketing allotments” limit the amount of domestically produced sugar that processors can sell each year, eliminating the prospect of overproduction.

Last month, the libertarian Cato Institute released a study concluding U.S. sugar prices are roughly twice as high as elsewhere in the world, due entirely to U.S. sugar policy.

The Sugar Policy Modernization Act would seek to roll back these high prices by making sugar import quotas more flexible and protecting taxpayers from government-funded buyouts of surplus sugar.

The Editorial Board of Treasure Coast Newspapers/TCPalm has backed the measure, joining a broad bipartisan coalition of supporters, which includes the aforementioned free-market advocates, environmentalists, small businesses, retailers and food manufacturers.

We acknowledge the amendment, if passed, could have consequences here in Florida, where the sugar industry supports an estimated 30,000 direct and indirect jobs.

U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez told TCPalm the amendment ought to be called the “Sugarcane Farmers Bankruptcy Act.” Should it pass, opponents say it could lead to a massive oversupply, which would trigger a collapse in prices. That, in turn, could lead to a loss of sugar production — and jobs.

Yet critics of current sugar policy assert artificially high sugar prices actually have led to broad-based economic decay. Some studies suggest American consumers could save as much as $3.5 billion via reforms, and employment in food manufacturing and related industries would expand.

The House is scheduled to take up the Farm Bill in the coming week. House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway reportedly worries the Sugar Policy Modernization Act could undermine support for the overall bill, which contains other measures strongly backed by conservatives, including a proposal to cut the the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.

Sugar reform might fail. Mast, should he follow through on his pledge, may be casting a symbolic and ultimately futile vote.

Maybe it’s easy to be brave when the stakes are low.

Nonetheless, Mast deserves kudos for his willingness to do the right thing, even when it would be far easier politically to just go along to get along.

Mast correctly has interpreted the zeitgeist in his district. Support for sugar reform is strong here for environmental reasons; as a group of 11 environmental organizations told Nelson, sugarcane production south of Lake Okeechobee is seen as “a great impediment” to Everglades restoration.

For economic as well as environmental reasons, that impediment should be removed.

Mast is right.

And we’d hope other members of Florida’s congressional delegation find the fortitude to recognize it — and vote accordingly.

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