The office of commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is back in Republican hands. Former Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, who was term-limited in that chamber, ran for the seat and won it last year. His predecessor, Democrat Nikki Fried, opted to run for governor after one term at FDACS, losing to Charlie Crist in the primary.
Lawmaking is behind him, but the past is never really past. Gov. Ron DeSantis recently vetoed $100 million for Conservation And Rural Land Protection easements, a program that had been championed by Simpson while in the Senate. Such easements allow landowners to continue farming and cattle operations in exchange for not developing the property.
Simpson, a Pasco County egg farmer, blasted the veto: “There is no conceivable reason to target agriculture in a year when we have billions of dollars in reserves,” he said in a statement. “Agriculture was harmed today and so was the state of Florida.”
The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam recently spoke with Simpson about that and other issues on City & State Florida’s “Deeper Dive with Dara” podcast, released last week. What follows are five of the questions asked. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity:
A federal appellate panel just issued a ruling upholding a … deal between the state of Florida and the Seminole Tribe of Florida … that gives the tribe control of sports betting throughout the state. (You) played a major role in negotiating that compact with the tribe. Where are we at right now?
That was one of my major priorities as Senate president, to get that completed. I started working with the Tribe as president-designate several years before taking over the presidency. And we actually had come to an arrangement or had negotiated substantially all of the compact, and we did not get it done. … You'll remember, we actually had to come back in to special session and do the compact. … The expansion was going to be mostly about having roulette and other games … and sports betting.
And in return, the state of Florida would receive a minimum of $500 million a year in revenue. And it turns out it'll be much higher than that. So now that the courts have ruled, the compact will go forward. I believe there's about a 45-day timeframe to appeal that decision. So I think that we're being cautious, but within a few more weeks here, I think you'll see that compact moving forward. It will mean well over $500 million a year to the state of Florida.
I wanted to move on to some of the stuff that went on during the legislative session. As you know, Gov. DeSantis vetoed $100 million for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. That's something that you advocated for and oversee. What do you think about it?
… Our biggest concern is, how do we preserve agriculture? How do we prevent this urban sprawl into agricultural lands? A lot of folks will say, the last crop we plant are, you know, houses. The last property we plant are commercial buildings. How do you prevent that on your vital agricultural land? And so when I was Senate president, we established the wildlife corridor, which I'm very happy to say that the current president and speaker are both putting resources toward. … I think (the governor and I) think about it a little differently on how to do it. So when you think about the rural and family lands program, we actually go in and buy development rights from farmers. We do not go in and do a fee simple purchase. And I'll give you some differences.
If you give me $100 million to go in and buy development rights, my money will go two to three times as far in acreage … Number two, if the state buys the land, … it comes off the tax rolls. So your local citizens now are not getting the benefit of that property. Being able to … support your frontline responders, your education system, and all your frontline government, your county government. When you look at rural and family lands, farmers continue to take care of that land in perpetuity. If the state buys the land, we have to then get more money from the Legislature next year to … take care of that land we just bought.
Now in some of the deals, we will say, well, we're gonna buy the land, but then we're going to lease it back to farmers. We're going to lease it to them for a certain period of time. Well, that's just a ticking clock. Because when that lease runs out, if it's not renewed or a different administration comes in that doesn't want to lease those lands, now you have eliminated all of that land from production. You've taken it out of the private enterprise, you've paid three times as much as we had to pay for it, and then we have to take care of that land, which we're not very good at in most cases.
Wasn't there wasn't a kind of reciprocity, maybe, that you had expected with the kind of financial shape that you left the state in when you left the Senate as president in November?
I think of it through the lens of … common sense. No one would veto a hundred million dollars to preserve agricultural lands from development … in this state when agriculture is under such attack from (citrus) greening and from other diseases, and invasive species coming in. It just didn't make … common sense. And, you know, it just puts us another $100 million dollars behind, which probably represents 50 or 60,000 acres of land … that will not be preserved this year. And we have a lot of really good allies working on this. But the truth is, … you need a lawyer … hopefully only once every two or three years. But you need a farmer three times a day. And by not approving those monies to go into rural family lands, you're limiting our ability to have farmers in the future.
Gov. DeSantis is running for president now. The first early state is Iowa. Do you think that a $100 million dollar veto will hurt him in a farming state like Iowa or in other farming states?
I have no way of knowing, but I know how farmers are. I think that when people understand what happened and understand the ramifications of what happened, I certainly do think it would give them pause to wonder like, ‘wait a second, why would you do that’? And let's put it back in context. There’s $20 billion of reserves, and you're spending record amounts of money for buying land, right? And leasing it to farmers which is a noble cause, except we haven't said, ‘hey, we should surplus the vast majority of this land once we get it back to the farming community and back on the local tax rolls. We just don't have a business strategy there, in my opinion, to do the right thing.
People from outside of Florida … don't think of Florida as an agriculture state. … There's still a lot of wide open spaces. Just give a little plug for your department. How much of an economic impact does the industry have on the state’s balance sheet?
During normal economic times, tourism is number one. Agriculture goes back and forth from No. 1 to No. 2. … Let's (talk about) COVID for a second. … Being in the egg business, we could not take a day off. We had to put eggs in cartons the day that the government was temporarily shut down within a few weeks. We were delivering eggs every day to the stores. Your farmers never took a day off, not one day off when a lot of people had to stay home … and many did for many months. We never took a day off.
Truck drivers never took a day off. Our law enforcement never took a day off. Our health care system never took a day off. And so when you look at the realities, your agricultural community in those moments had to stand up and do what was right. And I always say this because agriculture is a national security issue. We know that oil and petroleum is national security, right? We’ve got strategic supply all over this country in case there's a war or a disruption. … What happens if there's one week of no food in the grocery store? We saw it during COVID. People lost their minds.