Commentary

Florida’s Senate president is working for one client: Big Sugar

Would-be Ag Commissioner Wilton Simpson pulled a fast one on everyone, hurting the Everglades

February 24, 2022 7:00 am
The Everglades

The Everglades. Credit: National Park Service

I am going to tell you something so shocking, I hope you don’t keel over in a dead faint: Journalists tend to be irreverent. Do you need a minute to sit down?

Here’s an example: When I worked at the then-St. Pete Times, we came up with a rude name for the left hand bottom quarter of the front page. Anything that runs there tends to be the least-read story on the page, so we referred to it as the “Doyle Conner Memorial Corner.”

Doyle Conner was Florida’s agriculture commissioner from 1961 to 1991. As a statewide elected official and member of the Florida Cabinet for three decades, he was certainly important. But any news he generated seemed as boring as a Federal Register notice — hence our name for the place to publish stories that seemed important but dull.

But I would hardly call the ag commissioner job dull nowadays. Our fine Legislature has put Conner’s successors in charge of everything from issuing concealed weapons permits to investigating consumer fraud (two jobs that would fit better under the Florida Department of Law Enforcement).

The commissioner also oversees our state forests, fights wildfires, and battles exotic invaders like the giant African land snail (which was smuggled in by a religious cult that thought drinking its mucus would make you healthy). I haven’t even mentioned the part about “assisting Florida’s farmers … with the production and promotion of agricultural products.”

We’re going to elect a new agriculture commissioner this year. You may not have heard anything about it because nearly all the election-related news has been about Gov. Ron “Never Apologize for Saying the N-Word” DeSantis and his challengers (including the current ag commissioner, onetime medical marijuana lobbyist Nikki Fried.)

Wilton Simpson presiding over the Florida Senate on Oct. 19, 2021. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

But this race is pretty important too, involving water pollution standards and irrigation-versus-conservation and so forth. Right now, the frontrunner turns out to be the sitting president of the state Senate, Wilton Simpson. He’s already gotten a weird Trump endorsement, and the builders love him too. The Florida Chamber of Commerce even put up an I-75 billboard praising him.

Based on what Sen. Simpson has been up to in the Legislature lately, I think it’s safe to predict that if and when he’s elected ag commissioner, he won’t be working for all the people of Florida. He won’t even be working for all of its farmers and ranchers.

He’ll have one main client: Big Sugar.

Here’s what happened: On Friday, Feb. 4, nearly a month after the session began, a bill suddenly appeared in the Senate Appropriations Committee like a rabbit popping out of a magician’s top hat.

Although on paper the sponsor of SB 2508 was Sen. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula citrus grower, it was obvious that this rabbit belonged to a magician named Simpson (and no, I don’t mean Homer). He didn’t deny it, telling reporters at a Feb. 10 press conference, “I completely agree with the bill.”

There were tons of bad things for the environment in SB 2508 (more on that in a bit). But the provision that grabbed the most attention would have diverted funding away from the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir. That’s a key project for managing polluted water from Lake Okeechobee so it would stop flowing to the two coasts, spurring toxic algae blooms.

The Simpson Surprise sparked a — what’s a bigger word than “furor”? A volcanic eruption? A tidal wave of white-hot magma? What I am trying to say is that it made a lot of people reeeeeally angry.

Officials from the state agency in charge of Everglades restoration, the South Florida Water Management District, complained that they had been blindsided. A horde of fishing guides who are part of a group called Captains for Clean Water parked their trailered boats in front of our outlandishly phallic Capitol building to protest how we were all getting screwed.

And the governor (brace yourself, I’m about to say something nice about him) thundered that anything that hurt the Everglades reservoir plan would face a swift veto, which was the right thing to say.

The governor also said — and pay close attention to this part – that the bill “is being rammed through the budget process, short-circuiting public engagement and leaving affected agencies in the dark.” That is an absolutely true statement.

So Albritton, who claimed all the opponents were merely “misinformed,” announced he was filing an amendment taking out that part about the reservoir. Some environmental advocates declared victory and retired from the field of battle — prematurely, as it turned out.

The bill, which had already sailed through its one and only committee vote, then passed the full Senate 37-2. It still had bad stuff in it, but the committee meeting was the public’s only shot at offering any comment. Simpson had sacrificed an outlandish goal to achieve a more insidious one.

“The intentions we had last week are the same intentions we had this week,” Simpson told reporters on Feb. 17.

The bill still includes something the sugar industry wants very badly: Continued control over the South Florida water supply.

And if Simpson succeeds in getting those provisions into the state budget, there is little the public — or DeSantis — can do about it.

That ain’t farming

Whenever you read stories about Simpson, he is usually described as “an egg farmer from Trilby.” But that’s misleading.

He’s no country boy in frayed overalls making the rounds of all the hens in a tumbledown coop (which is the way my grandfather ran his little chicken farm in Santa Rosa County).

Instead, Simpson owns an industrial egg production operation with, according to the Citrus County Chronicle, more than 1 million chickens. That’s enough poultry to make Col. Sanders salivate.

According to his financial disclosure forms, as of 2020, Simpson is worth more than $31.5 million and his “egg farm” was worth more than $17.8 million, and that’s no yolk. (He also runs an asbestos removal company whose employees included onetime House Speaker Will Weatherford.)

Folks, if you’re making that much money off eggs, that ain’t “farming.” That’s agribusiness — a big-money industry just like the Big Sugar executives practice it. He speaks their language and they speak his.

But how, you may ask, do we know that Big Sugar likes Simpson? The way to measure their pleasure is simple. They have, as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel columnist Steve Bousquet reported recently, contributed to his coffers “an astounding amount of sugar industry campaign money, including $675,000 to one of several political committees he chairs.”

Simpson has turned out to be an excellent investment for the sugar execs. Just last year, he pushed through a bill to expand Florida’s Right to Farm Law to shield them from lawsuits over “particle emissions.”

He called that a “technical” change, although a more accurate term would be “forcing poor people to breathe soot for months every year, with no legal recourse.”

The sugar industry has a longstanding practice of setting fire to its fields to clear excess leaves  before harvesting the stalks, blanketing nearby towns with thick, choking smoke. The industry was unnerved by a federal lawsuit over the practice and wanted to make sure there could be no others — hence, they turned to Simpson.

Sure enough, the bill passed and DeSantis — a self-proclaimed foe of Big Sugar and its federal price supports — signed it into law without a peep (as we say in the chicken biz).

Now comes Simpson’s latest Help the Sugar Industry to Own Florida Bill, which even without the reservoir language is pretty foul (get it? fowl? OK, I’ll stop now).

The pro-sugar language still in the bill, according to Eve Samples of Friends of the Everglades and Julie Wraithmell of Audubon Florida, has to do with water supply rules that were set up in 2007.

Those rules say that, in case of a drought, the sugar farmers would get top priority for what’s left of the water supply. Water for all of the other people in South Florida, and for the Everglades, gets a lower priority.

Clearly, those rules are badly out of date and need revision. They need to be rewritten to give equal priority to Everglades restoration and the residents around the great marsh. But SB 2508 would keep those old rules on the books forever, Samples told me.

See, Big Sugar is trying to be just like the bratty Veruca Salt in the egg room scene in “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” It always wants to go first. (Just ignore that honking from the Bad Egg Detector.)

There are a couple of other provisions in the bill that stink like a chicken coop with a million hens. According to Samples and Wraithmell, the bill authorizes Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection to let utilities pay extra in exchange for faster permits to wipe out wetlands. Think of it as a Disney Fastpass for environmental destruction.

Among the utilities that provision might help out would be Tampa Electric Co., which in 2018 gave Simpson more than $4 million for land he’d bought in 2016 for $1.4 million.

The other troubling provision in the bill would allow the next ag commissioner — gee, who could that be? — to revamp the state’s current Rural and Family Lands Protection Program as a free-spending rival for the popular but perpetually cash-strapped Florida Forever environmental land-buying program.

Right now, the Rural and Family Lands program buys conservation easements on ranches and other agricultural open spaces. The bill would allow the department to buy the land outright, for any reason, and it could be anything from a failed citrus grove to property contaminated by pesticides.

Simpson clearly intended this bill as a late-breaking sneak attack because he knew it couldn’t stand up to inspection in the daylight. As matters stand now, if the House doesn’t kill this language, the two women told me, the only way DeSantis could stop it is by vetoing the entire state budget.

“It’s a major policy change on so many fronts, and it comes out on a Friday night with only one committee stop, and that only days away,” Wraithmell said. “This is not the way government should be run in Florida.”

But it will be the way the ag department runs under Simpson.

How sweet it is

I contacted Simpson’s office to ask how a guy from Pasco County wound up as the senator representing the South Florida sugar industry. I was told that he’d answered all questions about SB 2508 at his two press conferences (which turned out to be about as true as his claim that the pro-soot bill was a mere technical change).

So, I talked to someone else about him — someone involved in agriculture. The irony, you see, is that by carrying water (so to speak) for Big Sugar, Simpson is hurting not just the environment but also the farmers and ranchers he’s supposed to look out for as ag commissioner.

Ron Bergeron

One of the people this latest bill has ticked off is the only water management district board member who’s also a cattle-roping, gator-rassling, python-hunting rodeo champ, Ronald “Alligator Ron” Bergeron.

Bergeron and I talked for a while this week about Simpson and Big Sugar. He also regaled me with stories about how panthers have walked up on him while he’s out turkey-hunting and he just tells them to leave him alone because he’s saving their habitat.

The 78-year-old Davie rancher gave me what he called “the redneck cowboy alligator-wrestler viewpoint” on Simpson’s bill.

This is it: “If ag wants to take more than their fair share from the 9 million people who live here and one of the natural wonders of the world that replenishes our drinking water, then that, to me, is greedy.” He also suggested that anyone trying to run Everglades restoration from Tallahassee had rocks for brains.

Fried’s predecessor as ag commissioner, Adam Putnam, was a close ally of the sugar execs, too. He not only took their campaign cash, he got a free Texas hunting trip from them. That association turned into a liability when he ran for governor (he lost to an “unknown congressman with a bad haircut”). Perhaps Simpson’s sugar ties will hurt him too.

Nevertheless, I think Simpson, rather than trying to hide his fealty to the Kings of Cane, should instead embrace this alliance in the interest of transparency. When he’s out campaigning for agriculture commissioner, he should tout his experience at making one industry supreme over all the others. Why, he could even include a reference to it in his campaign slogan:

“Vote for Simpson. Sugar says he’s the sweetest.”

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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