- By Wayne Washington Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson met with Glades officials Friday in West Palm Beach to tout the passage of a budget deal with additional funding that could be used to expedite repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike at Lake Okeechobee.
Hurricane Irma’s push through Florida last year renewed long-standing fears of what a rupture would mean for Glades residents protected by the dike, whose construction dates back to the 1930s. For decades, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has worked to upgrade portions of the dike, but the project has been massively expensive and time-consuming.
The budget bill President Donald Trump signed into law Friday includes $10.4 billion for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects, and Nelson — along with other elected officials in Florida — expect $776 million of that money to be used to expedite upgrades at the Hoover Dike, moving completion of work there up to 2022 from 2025.
“I’m so glad to meet with the elected officials and the residents out by Lake Okeechobee because they’ve been been fearful that a big storm’s gonna come along and it’s going to breach that dike,” Nelson said during a meeting with Glades officials at the Historical Society of Palm Beach County’s building in West Palm Beach. “This is a real win, especially for the folks out at Lake Okeechobee.”
It could be a real win for Nelson, too. And, if a recent poll from the Florida Atlantic University Business and Economics Polling Initiative is any indication, Nelson needs a win.
That poll of 750 Florida residents, conducted from Feb. 1 through Feb. 4 and released Wednesday, showed Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, opening up a 10-percentage point lead over Florida’s Democratic senator in their expected but still hypothetical Senate race this fall.
Some 44 percent of those polled said they’d back Scott if he squared off with Nelson, who got the support of 34.2 percent of those polled. Just under 22 percent of respondents remain undecided.
Nelson dismissed the importance of the poll.
“It’s way too early to attach any importance to these existing polls,” he said Friday.
Several of the elected officials who met with Nelson Friday praised him for his support of additional money for the Hoover Dike.
“Thank you for being a champion for such a needed project in the Glades,” Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson told Nelson.
Noting that she has “spent countless hours walking the halls of Congress, meeting with the Army Corps, writing letters and passing resolutions requesting this funding,” County Mayor Melissa McKinlay joined in offering thanks to Nelson “for his nonstop, tireless efforts to secure life-saving appropriations for the Hoover Dike.”
Nelson, however, wasn’t the only Florida politician taking a victory lap because of the additional money.
“I am proud that our work on the Senate Appropriations Committee has resulted in virtually all of our funding needs being met,” Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement released Friday. “Among them is relief for Florida’s citrus growers, school repairs and funding to accommodate an increase in enrolled students, the expedited completion of the Herbert Hoover Dike rehabilitation, vital beach re-nourishment, and repair of damaged Everglades infrastructure.”
Scott also claimed credit, putting out his own statement about disaster relief funding in the budget, which includes the additional money for corps projects.
“At my request, this relief also includes funding to speed the critical repairs to the federally-operated Herbert Hoover Dike,” the governor said. “At my urging, and after securing a commitment from the White House, Congress has finally made funding available for this federal project.”
While the budget bill gave elected officials a moment to crow, other thorny political issues remain.
The FAU poll provided a snapshot on a pair of hot topics — whether the U.S. should build a wall along its southern border with Mexico and whether young people brought into the country illegally a children should be allowed to stay.
Respondents were split on the wall; 45 percent said they oppose it, and 43 percent said they support it. A significant majority of those polled — 58 percent — said they support allowing those brought into the country illegally as children to stay.
The Obama administration created a program that deferred the deportation of those residents, but Trump has threatened to end it, increasing the possibility that long-time residents who have only known this country could be deported to another.
Nelson said he’d support funding for a border wall — which candidate Trump repeatedly promised to build with money from Mexico — if those brought into the country illegally as children were allowed to stay.
Trump and Senate leaders have discussed that deal, which, at one point, was seen as the way to break the political logjam blocking passage of a government funding bill.
The president changed his mind about the deal, however, and angry Democrats pulled it off the table, settling instead for a promise from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, that a separate vote on the issue would be held.
Some immigration advocates and Democrats fear that, without the prospect of a government shutdown forcing compromise, the president and others pushing for a crackdown on legal and illegal immigration will end the Obama-era deportation deferments and begin kicking out those protected by the program, who are frequently called Dreamers.
Nelson said the parameters of an immigration deal remain in place.
“That deal is already cut, and I’ve been a part of that bipartisan group of moderate senators that have been working to find a compromise that can pass in a bipartisan way,” Nelson said. “Indeed, since the president ultimately is either going sign or veto a bill, you’ve got to satisfy (Republicans).”
The border wall is seen by some as racist and unnecessary. Nelson previewed how he and other Democrats are likely to characterize their support for it.
“What is a wall?” he said when asked about it Friday. “A wall is many things. It’s not just a border wall of concrete and steel. It can be electronic surveillance. It can be unmanned aerial vehicles. It can be additional border patrol. It can be a lot of things.”