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Politics / Issues

Florida Senate President Talks Red Tide, Reclaimed Water, Vocational Schools At Ybor Meeting

Three men in suits stand together. One, in the middle, holds a stuffed tiger toy.
Jacob Wentz
/
WUSF Public Media
Senate President Wilton Simpson, Tampa contractor Michael Reeves, and Tampa Tiger Bay Club President Tom Scherberger smile after the club's Friday meeting in Ybor.

Wilton Simpson took on some challenging questions from Tampa Tiger Bay Club members while saying population growth is the biggest challenge Florida faces.

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson was a guest at the Tampa Tiger Bay Club’s Friday meeting in Ybor City.

He started by discussing the regular and special sessions of the 2021 Florida Legislature.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s legislative session was marked by fiscal uncertainty. Florida lawmakers returned to Tallahassee in March facing at least a $2 billion budget shortfall driven by a decline in state taxes and lottery funds.

But in the end, they passed a record budget, buoyed by billions of dollars in federal stimulus money and rebounding state tax revenues.

“This year we ended the session with a balanced budget,” Simpson said. “Today we have over $10 billion of reserves. If we have a hurricane, we have money in the bank to pay for that disaster.”

He summarized other issues the legislature addressed, including restoration of the Everglades, the effects of sea-level rise, bonuses to first responders, and raising the minimum pay of state workers to $13 an hour.

But he said the biggest challenge Florida faces is population growth.

“The biggest challenge we have going forward is the amount of population that's moving here,” Simpson said. “We have between 1,000 and 1,500 people a day moving here, for a lot of reasons.”

In addition to advocating for the construction of more roads to accommodate the growing population, the Senate President spoke about how that could affect the state’s water supply.

“Anywhere you have dense population you need sewer lines, you need to capture that,” Simpson said. “Which leads to another issue of reclaimed water. Today in the state of Florida, between 700 and 800 million gallons of reclaimed water will go to tide. Every bit of that water could be used for drinking water for reclaiming wetlands for saltwater intrusion all of the above.”

The legislature passed a bill that will require local governments to have a plan for how they will begin using reclaimed water.

After he finished his summary, the “Tiger Cage” was opened. Members of the Tampa Tiger Bay Club were encouraged to ask challenging, thoughtful questions.

One member asked about sugar farms around Lake Okeechobee.

Runoff from the farms pollutes the lake and that water is released to the east and west coasts, where it kills sea grasses and is believed to feed toxic red tide algae blooms.

But Simpson says most of those sugar farmers are not contributing to the pollution.

“We've reduced nutrient load almost to nothing coming out for farms that are using best management practices," he said. "When you think about agriculture, and everybody in here had a nice lunch, I hope. You should say 'thank you' and leave it at that."

A farmer himself, Simpson was then asked how much money he receives in contributions from “Big Agriculture” and “Big Sugar.”

“A lot,” he said. “If you're a farmer in the legislature, a lot of other farmers will support you.”

The Tiger Bay Club dons a coveted “Garfield” Award on the club member who asks the most insightful question, according to a panel of three judges.

The winner of the award, Tampa-based building and plumbing contractor Michael Reeves, asked about what state representatives are doing to support trade schools.

“A lot of people like me, African Americans, are struggling to try to be plumbers and roofers," Reeves said. "A lot of African Americans don't have the money to pursue college careers.”

“As we talked about economics in Florida, I know for a fact that when it comes to construction, it’s booming. As an owner of a company, what I experience is not having the proper labor or apprenticeship. What are you doing up there?”

Simpson responded by speaking about the importance of strengthening Florida’s education system.

“If you're going to break generational poverty in this state, you're going to do it because you've got the right K-12 system,” Simpson said.

“We have continually followed the K-12 model to try to inject more vocational opportunities. And again, as Tallahassee, we put resources in, but we don't dictate how (districts use them). But we are funding vocational work opportunities all over the state.”

Simpson has one more session as Senate president and is widely expected to run for Agriculture Commissioner.

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