Florida Senate Speaker Wilton Simpson was a guest at Friday’s Tampa Tiger Bay Club meeting in Ybor City.
He began by discussing the 2021 Florida Legislature Regular and Special Sessions.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s legislative session was marked by budget uncertainty. Florida lawmakers returned to Tallahassee in March facing at least one $ 2 billion budget shortfall driven by lower state taxes and lottery funds.
But in the end they spent a record budget, supported by billions of dollars in federal stimulus funds and rebounding state tax revenues.
âThis year we ended the session on a balanced budget,â said Simpson. âToday we have over $ 10 billion in reserves. If we have a hurricane, we have money in the bank to pay for that disaster. “
He summarized other issues addressed by the legislature, including the restoration of the Everglades, the effects of rising sea levels, bonuses for first responders, and raising the minimum wage for state employees to 13 $ per hour.
But he said the biggest challenge Florida faces is population growth.
âThe biggest challenge we have going forward is the amount of people moving here,â Simpson said. âWe have between 1,000 and 1,500 people a day moving here for a number of reasons. “
In addition to advocating for the construction of more roads to accommodate the growing population, the Senate Speaker explained how this could affect the state’s water supply.
âAnywhere you have a dense population you need sewer lines, you have to capture that,â Simpson said. âWhich leads to another problem of reclaimed water. Today in the state of Florida, between 700 and 800 million gallons of collected water will go to the tide. Every part of this water could be used for drinking water to reclaim wetlands for salt water intrusion, all of the above.
The legislature adopted a bill this will require local governments to have a plan for how they will start using reclaimed water.
After completing his summary, the “Tiger Cage” was opened. Members of the Tampa Tiger Bay Club were encouraged to ask thought-provoking and thoughtful questions.
A member asked about the sugar farms around Lake Okeechobee.
Runoff from farms pollutes the lake and this water is dumped on the east and west coasts, where it kills seagrass and is believed to feed toxic algae blooms from red tides.
But Simpson says most of those sugar producers don’t contribute to pollution.
âWe have reduced the nutrient load to almost nil for farms that use best management practices,â he said. âWhen you think of farming, and everyone here has had a nice lunch, I hope. You should say âthank youâ and leave it at that. “
A farmer himself, Simpson then asked how much money he received in contributions from “Big Agriculture” and “Big Sugar”.
âA lot,â he said. âIf you are a farmer in the legislature, there are many other farmers who will support you. “
The Tiger Bay Club presents a coveted “Garfield” award to the club member who asks the most insightful question, according to a three-judge panel.
Award winner Michael Reeves, a Tampa-based building and plumbing contractor, asked what state officials are doing to support trade schools.
âA lot of people like me, African Americans, have a hard time becoming plumbers and roofers,â Reeves said. “A lot of African Americans don’t have the money to pursue college careers.”
âWhile we were talking about the economy in Florida, I know for a fact that when it comes to construction, it’s booming. As a business owner, what I feel is that you don’t have the right workforce or the right apprenticeship. What are you doing up there? “
Simpson responded by talking about the importance of strengthening Florida’s education system.
âIf you want to break generational poverty in this state, you’re going to do it because you have the right K-12 system,â Simpson said.
âWe have continuously followed the K-12 model to try to inject more professional opportunities. And again, as Tallahassee, we invest resources, but we don’t dictate how (districts use them). But we do fund professional work opportunities statewide.
Simpson has one more session as President of the Senate and is expected to run for the post of Agriculture Commissioner by a wide margin.