Five Questions With Wilton Simpson, Florida's Incoming Senate President
Family man. Business man. Policy leader.
Those are the words Sen. Wilton Simpson’s website uses to describe the lawmaker, who on Tuesday will be tapped by his colleagues as the Senate’s next president.
The 53-year-old Trilby Republican was elected to the Senate in 2012 and served as majority leader in 2016 and 2017.
Simpson, a Florida native who has two adult children and two grandchildren, is a Pasco County general contractor who owns an egg farm as well as an environmental remediation company that’s one of the largest in the southeastern U.S.
Simpson, a graduate of what is now Pasco-Hernando State College, will take over the gavel from President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, following the 2020 elections.
The News Service of Florida has five questions for Wilton Simpson:
Q: You often refer to yourself as an “egg farmer,” but you’re a very successful businessman who didn’t pursue a political career until you ran for the Senate. Now, you’re about to become the next president of the upper chamber. What was your entrée into politics and what prompted you to run for office?
SIMPSON: At a very young age, I sort of had the bug and the notion that I would eventually run in some way in my life. I think it’s in your DNA if you want to serve in this capacity. And it was definitely in my DNA. Obviously, the first president I could vote for was Ronald Reagan in 1984, when I turned 18 in June. I loved those debates. I always listened to it at the federal level. I watched the news a lot in the evenings, or in the mornings, early. So I was always very interested, and I always saw that there was a common-sense way of doing things, whether you’re in Tallahassee or Washington. Of course, they have no idea what common sense means in Washington. But there’s common-sense ways of doing things. I thought, one day I will run and I can be a consensus builder on things and get things done. In my business life, government at every turn is trying to figure out a way to not allow business to thrive --- local governments, county governments, state governments, federal governments. And if you look at the philanthropic work that I’ve done, which has been very excessive in the last 30 years, same thing there. If you’re in the fair associations, there’s state laws that govern most of that. If you’re in Habitat for Humanity, you’re always worried about state funding. No matter what philanthropic group you’re in --- Boys and Girls Club --- you’re always worried about state funding. So there was that common denominator in my mind, that government should be more user-friendly to businesses and more user-friendly to the groups of people that are trying to do the right thing for people, philanthropic-type organizations, 501(c)(3)s. So for that reason, I wanted to eventually run. Then when the redistricting process happened, I had two senators, one on each side of me --- Sen. (Paula) Dockery and Sen. (Mike) Fasano --- both were termed out. So it seemed like the right time to jump in, and that’s when I did it. And my children were older, one was already out of the house, one was in high school. So once my children were grown, businesses were in good shape, then I thought this would be the right time.
Q: The Senate will hold a special session this month to consider the reinstatement or removal of suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel. Are senators in a bind over whether to side with Special Master Dudley Goodlette --- a former Republican legislator who found that Gov. Ron DeSantis did not make the case for Israel’s suspension --- or the Republican governor?
SIMPSON: I don’t think we’re in a bind at all. I don’t think there’s any pre-judgment. I don’t think we, as senators, are sitting around planning --- I know I’m certainly not --- on which way I’m going to decide. I’m going to listen to the information, get all of the facts and then make a decision. I think that the process that we have set up called the Florida Legislature, in this particular case, the governor did his work, now the Senate has to do its work, I thnk it’s the best system in the world. Sometimes we don’t like what the sausage looks like, but I think when we’re finished, it nets the best results that can be attained. So I’m going to let the process happen. I think the process will take us to the right answers. So if the governor’s disappointed or the Israel supporters are disappointed, well that’s the process. I think it’s a very fair process and it will be had in an open forum with lots of public testimony and all of that will be taken into consideration.
Q: What do you see as your biggest challenge when you take over as president next year?
SIMPSON: We don’t know this for certain, but I think the consensus is going to be very, very tough budget years. All of the tax cuts that we put in place, all of the funding that we put in place in this good economy, if we have a much slower economy or we have a recession, it’s going to really draw down the state funds. Right now, we’re always talking about how much more do we have to spend. This year, we think it’s roughly $300 million right now. I think we’ll be looking at how much do we have to cut a year from now, two years from now. I’m not hoping that, but there’s a lot of economists that believe that’s the case. And if they turn out to be right, then I think that will be our biggest challenge, is how do we overcome the budget challenges without cutting critical services.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish as president?
SIMPSON: I think about that, not in the context of being Senate president. I’ve thought about that because I’ve served seven years. This is going to be my eighth session. I know I have two left. On the continuum of what do you want to accomplish, we’ve accomplished so many things in my first seven years, on the environment, on education, on things that are changing the lives of our most needy people and our most vulnerable people in the state. I’m very proud of those things. When I think about the next three years, I hope to do a couple of things. I hope to make sure that the budget for the state of Florida is very sound and we’re not leaving a hole, if you will, for the next Legislature to fill. I hope that we do some things for our children’s groups, the ones that serve our most vulnerable children --- Boys and Girls Club groups, Pace Center for Girls, AMI kids, those kinds of things. I hope that we can really make sure that we’re focusing on the ones with the best outcomes. And what I really would be proud of is if we could accomplish something to get more of our children off of foster care and into adoptive homes much quicker than we do today. What happens is, if a child from age 2 to 4 doesn’t get the proper education, or from 4 to 6 doesn’t get the proper education, then you set them back many years in their career, because that’s when they’re learning the most. What happens when a child is stuck in foster care from 1 year old to 8 years old, or 10 years old, bouncing from house to house, from school to school? What happens to that child, then? We don’t even talk about that. We act like it almost doesn’t exist. I’m going to focus on some of those areas. I believe we can (get) a substantial amount of those children adopted. I think we’re going to have to change the rules, how that happens, and how we get qualified, and who’s qualified, and how we operate those programs. But with 33,000 kids in the foster-care system, if we can get half of those kids adopted, minimally, in the first few years as they go into the system, we would substantially change all of those lives. The opportunities that would come with that is almost not measurable, because you would be affecting tens of thousands of kids, and you know when you don’t do these things, we can clearly see the challenges that it creates with the corrections department, with the education system. I believe by correcting this, you will substantially correct a lot of what’s wrong with our education system with these children and also, because they’ll have loving families to work with them --- permanent loving families, because foster parents are special people, but they only have them for certain periods of time and then they move on, so it’s not like there are permanent roots there. I hope to do something in that area.
(That’s an issue that’s personal for you.)
It’s very personal to me. When we were kids, not only was I adopted, but we had foster kids at our house. And the stories that I have heard, pre-being elected and being elected, are just, they’re outrageous, about the time that it takes to qualify to be an adoptive parent these days, about the lack of support for adoptive families that happens after you’ve adopted, not having the proper support structure in place and making sure that these kids, though they have a loving family, but that the state is all in on making sure that they have the resources for the education they need through the university system, that they have insurance through that system. In other words, they have to have the minimal level of support like that, with insurance and education, because pre-adoption, after being in the foster-care system, they have no other options. … I’m going to attempt --- and it’s going to take a lot of work, it’s going to take a lot of cooperation by the House --- but it will be my goal that, a few years after I’m not here any longer, there would be substantially fewer kids in the foster system because the children would have been adopted, and there would be a substantially brighter future for these kids because they will know they have the resources they need to not just survive, but to thrive.
Q: With an impending economic downturn, how do you see the Legislature this year addressing what appears to be the governor’s push for new spending?
SIMPSON: I think the governor has, and I mean this, a lot of noble causes. When you’re a legislator and you get here and you start looking at the $92 billion budget, we think, boy, if you’re an education person, you think, if we just put $1 billion more in education, we could bring teachers’ minimum pay up to $47,500. We could increase veteran teachers’ pay. In other words, you could take care of that system with a billion dollars. Well, with another billion dollars, you could take care of folks who work in our nursing homes, and the folks who work in those systems who are being paid $10, $12, $13 an hour, that are taking care of our most vulnerable in the state. What about law enforcement? In my seven years, we have given raises to numerous groups, including the state forestry law enforcement, lots of groups that were woefully underpaid. I think the governor’s got great ideas. What happens is, when you are looking at, specifically in this case, education, for a minimum of $600 million, that sounds like there’s more to come, you have to decide what you’re not going to do. You can say, well $280 million from Best and Brightest. That’s easy. What about the other $320 million? And is it recurring dollars? There’s a big difference between recurring and non-recurring, as you know. What we have to do, just as any government should do, we have to prioritize things. If we’re going to have $2 billion in new spending this year from teacher pay to environmental stewardship and things of that nature, we just have to find out what $2 billion are we not going to spend that we’re cu