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Florida gator farmers shed crocodile tears over loss of money

By Michael Peltier

TALLAHASSEE, Fla (Reuters) - A tough economy and a governor's campaign promise have Florida alligator farmers shedding more than crocodile tears as they try to market their exotic commodity with less help from the state.

Republican Governor Rick Scott, who sports a custom pair of alligator boots with "Governor" stamped on them, said repeatedly during his campaign that the $5 tax alligator farmers paid on each egg they collected was unfair and burdensome.

Earlier this year, Scott followed through on his promise to reduce taxes on Florida businesses and vetoed $150,000 used to promote the once-endangered reptile that is now commercially harvested by thick-skinned entrepreneurs around the state.

Just one problem. Farmers did not mind paying the extra $1 of the tax that was set aside for marketing and advertising alligator meat and hides, a pot of money seen as particularly useful at a time when demand for the hides is down.

Allen Register, owner of Gatorrama, a tourist attraction and alligator farm in Glades County in the southern part of the state, said he and the roughly 60 licensed alligator farmers told the governor so.

"We met with someone from the governor's office and explained that we supported the tax," said Register, chairman of the Florida Alligator Marketing and Education Committee. "We thought that would do it."

It didn't. Scott vetoed money going to the marketing program as he and lawmakers plugged a nearly $4 billion hole in the state's $69 billion budget.

The governor's office declined to comment to Reuters on Wednesday.

As of Tuesday, the marketing "croc pot" had a balance of $195,167.20. That money is combined with other funds used by the Florida Department of Agriculture to market alligator goods among the state's 322 commodities, which include everything from oranges to ornamental plants, said Sterling Ivey, an agency spokesman.

Most of the money goes toward trade show fees and specialized trade publications and marketing efforts.

"We're not going to be buying front page ads in national newspapers with that kind of budget," Ivey said. "But it does help get the word out."

Typically, alligator hides are salted, rolled up and sold to tanners who process them into the leather used by the manufacturing sector. The majority of hide tanners are located in Italy and France.

Market demand for alligator skins has swung dramatically during recent years due to economic downturns in Asia, Europe and North America, Register said.

Recent demand has been sluggish, a combination of global economic recession and consolidation within the tanning industry. The only bright spot is that prices for meat have risen as the hide market shrinks.

"That's the upside, but it hasn't been enough to make up for the loss in the price of hides," Register said.

This is not the first time the funding has disappeared, as former Governor Jeb Bush also vetoed the alligator marketing money during his time in office.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)