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Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Republican-Led House's Feud Comes To A Head

Ryan Dailey

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is the only statewide elected Democrat, and, she claims Republicans have it out for her. Fried is battling proposals that cut her department’s budget and take away the Office of Energy — something she’s calling a power grab. Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, are brushing off her complaints.

“I don’t need to be at today’s committee meeting, I know exactly what’s going to be happening later today behind these doors,” Fried said this week, as the House was considering the proposals. “Republicans will support Gov. Ron DeSantis’ power grab.”

The Republican-led Florida House is moving ahead with trying to move the state’s Office of Energy from Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s agency to the Department of Environmental Protection, housed under the governor’s authority.

The Office of Energy has been under the Department of Agriculture for the past nine years. Its function is to evaluate energy-related studies and stakeholder input in order to recommend policies and programs to the Governor and lawmakers. In terms of staffing and funding, Republicans propose moving exactly what’s in place under the Department of Agriculture will be moved over to DEP.

“(The proposal) transfers 14 full time equivalent positions, $539,080 in general revenue funds and $1,214,900 in trust fund authority,” said Republican Rep. Holly Raschein. She chairs the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations subcommittee, which is behind the committee bill.

Her rationale for moving the office seems to be – DEP is just a better fit.

“We talk about clean water, we talk about clean air, we talk about clean energy – so it’s a very acceptable place to put the Office of Energy,” Raschein said during the bill’s first stop.

Fried isn’t buying it, and is calling out what she sees as “partisan punishment.”

The Agriculture Commissioner is questioning the timing of the move, suggesting that’s all the evidence needed to chalk it up as politically pugnacious.

“When was the last time a sitting cabinet member, an elected constitutional officer of this state, had an important part of the department removed? I cannot think of another instance in decades,” Fried said this week.

But Raschein says the answer to the timing question is simple:

“Quite frankly, the election of Gov. Ron DeSantis happened. He’s really taken a lead on all things related to climate change, and has consistently shown that the environment is one of his priorities,” Raschein said. “This would be a perfect time to transfer the state energy office, under his leadership, to DEP.”

Then, there’s the stickers. Those who have filled an automobile with gas in the roughly the past year may have noticed Fried’s face smiling back from the pump. House Republican lawmakers have certainly taken note.

“I do think we’ve always got to be careful in our respective position, to serve the public with humility and just make sure we’re not going overboard in that regard,” said House Appropriations Chair Travis Cummings.

Cummings and his fellow Republicans see the stickers as self-promoting for political purposes, and passed a measure last session allowing only for text to be displayed on such stickers. The chamber is threatening to freeze nearly $20 million in funding to Fried’s agency until the stickers are replaced. The Agriculture Commissioner is speaking out about it.

“Republicans will also vote to hold Consumer Services’ budget hostage, threatening ability to protect consumers because they are upset about some stickers,” Fried said.

Fried says the process of replacing stickers is already underway.

“We have already been replacing these stickers,” Fried told reporters. “Stickers worked. They raised awareness. But we redesigned them with feedback from disabled veterans.”

The commissioner says the redesign was in the interest of increasing legibility. And, she says, the Republicans’ threat of withholding funds is being done in bad faith.

“Republicans are threatened - had near complete power for almost two decades. Now a Democratic woman gets elected statewide, and the old boys club cannot stand for it,” Fried said.

Meanwhile, the feud between Fried and House Republicans hasn’t seemed to reach the Senate.

Asked for his thoughts on the potential Office of Energy move and gas pump fracas, Senate Appropriations Chair Rob Bradley seemed cavalier. He had this to say about the energy office:

“No one has ever approached me and said to do it. As I’ve said before, I’m not even sure there’s a senate bill on that issue, and I would not consider that a priority of the Senate’s.”

Bradley took a similar tone in answering questions about the gas pump stickers. But he was pressed by reporters on what he thinks of the withholding of funds.

“Like I said, I’m not a big fan of the stickers in their present form but, my goodness, if the biggest thing we’re dealing with is stickers, then there’s not much going on,” Bradley told media. “The fact of the matter is there’s a lot of things going on, a lot of things that are very important, and that’s not something that would rise to the level of an incredibly important issue for the people of the state of Florida – but we’ll see how it goes.”

If it were to get pushed through, the House bill to move the Office of Energy would take effect in July.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.