When Senate President Bill Galvano gaveled in his first Session, his heart remained at his home district.
Sure, this year’s lawmaking process brought with it a stunning advance of conservative reforms in education and health care. But Galvano can rattle a list of projects big and small approved for the benefit of his constituents.
In an interview focused on regional wins, Galvano itemized a series of projects and issues benefiting Senate District 21 and surrounding communities.
There’s money going to University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee and to State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota. As well, a major red tide initiative prioritized by the Tampa Bay Legislative Delegation won approval. And the long-discussed Heartland Parkway, part of a toll road network practically paved with Galvano’s sweat and determination, won approval.
“It’s going to make a difference because we’ve provided that the corridors will include water and sewer and broadband,” Galvano said.
After closing out his first Session, Galvano came home to Bradenton with plenty to brag about at local neighborhood association meetings.
Galvano staked his reputation on no legislation this year as firmly as a bill (SB 7068) expanding toll roads.
While technically sponsored by state Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican and former Senate President, Galvano early on listed the roadways as a top priority. When Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law, he did so on Longboat Key in Galvano’s district. In fact, he did so while in town for a golf classic named after Galvano’s father.
As happens with major infrastructure improvements, not everybody came out to cheer on the roadway. The Sierra Club hates the plan, for example.
But Galvano said it’s important the highways come online, and that they do so quickly. The legislation calls for construction to start no later than 2022 and for everything to be completed by the end of 2030.
Regionally, the most significant part of the plan will be the Heartland Parkway — what everyone called a similar road plan during Gov. Jeb Bush’s tenure. Galvano at first avoided using the term but now doesn’t argue when the name comes up.
The toll road will stretch from Polk County south to Collier County, passing through such rural areas as Highlands County, where Galvano graduated high school.
The Senate President anticipates enormous benefits for the region once the roadway opens. It will relieve congestion and also make evacuations out of the region easier in the event of a hurricane. But beyond that?
“It will open up opportunities in the center of the state from an economic development standpoint,” Galvano said. “That will bleed into the Southwest Florida area and the west coast.
“And ultimately, notwithstanding some of the naysayers, it will have some positive environmental impact.”
What critics of the project ignore, Galvano suggests, are ways in which technology promises changes in transportation overall. Autonomous cars and electric vehicles will rapidly change how long-distance travel works in Florida.
“We can’t just rely on our existing means of transportation and try to make up for it and constantly try to add a lane here and there,” Galvano said. “If you’re truly concerned about the environment, I would start by thinking about the impact of having cars creeping along just burning gas sitting on these existing corridors with their exhaust going.”
Shifting congestion away from Interstate-75 means ending a concentration of pollution in dense cities. It also may help limit pouring nutrients into the Gulf of Mexico, feeding problems like red tide, Galvano suggests.
Regardless, Galvano reports business and political leaders throughout the counties where the parkway will run believe in the project. That will continue to be reflected in the planning for the roadway as it unfurls in coming years.
Galvano said execution efforts would be inclusive of state and local governments, community organizations and, yes, environmental groups knowledgeable about the sensitive areas in the road’s potential path.
As it stands, those communities rely on the economic engines of mining, an industry temporary in nature, and agriculture, which has born the brunt of citrus greening. The roadway will help diversify economies while also empowering the agrarian businesses already in operation there, Galvano said.
“We have a what I call a parameter of prosperity around the coast of our state,” he said. The parkway could better connect isolated areas of inner Florida to a flow of wealth in Florida’s waterfront communities.”
Many hoped the Legislature this year would respond to red tide with more pollution controls, not clean up and research.
But the Bradenton Republican pushes back at critiques from environmentalists about the Legislature.
Galvano boasts the Legislature devoted more financial resources to Florida’s ecology this year than in any years past in recent memory.
“The largest environmental budget that I’ve seen in a long time has occurred this Session,” Galvano said. “It builds upon the major changes we made with regard to Lake Okeechobee last Session. One of the biggest things that was a priority for me was the northern storage above the lake.”
By capturing water north of Okeechobee, that should help restore waters to better conditions in Florida’s largest water body. That, in turn, should mean cleaner water ultimately gets discharged into surrounding waterways.
Add in the millions budgeted this year for Everglades restoration, more than Gov. Ron DeSantis requested, and you have meaningful spends on water. That’s more important than new rules on pollutants.
“It’s not for lack of regulation that we have issues,” Galvano said. “We have a lake that does not have the capacity it should because the federal government has not stepped up like it should to enhance the integrity of the dike.”
Just like with Hurricane Michael response, the state will invest more than its fair share upfront, Galvano said. But it should create meaningful improvement in the environment.
Outside the water table, Galvano feels pride in investments into local colleges. The Senate President has supported a controversial consolidation of the University of South Florida’s campuses.
That includes bringing the USF Sarasota-Manatee, located in Galvano’s district, back under the auspices of the main university just a few years after the branch earned independent accreditation.
But the budget this year also includes $5 million in operating funding earmarked for the Sarasota-Manatee campus.
“Autonomy begins at a financial level,” Galvano said. “A good case was made by the leadership at USF Sarasota-Manatee that in order to continue in its regional role and independence, the operational supplement was necessary.”
That means even as the school once again becomes a regional arm of USF Tampa, the Sarasota education venue will keep a separate character, and students should still be able to complete four-year degrees without a drive to Hillsborough County.
Galvano can point to hyperlocal wins, from funding grants to Easterseals of Southwest Florida to money for a 44th Avenue extension in Bradenton.
Of course, Galvano as presiding officer of the Senate did not sponsor any bills this year. But he exerted his influence at numerous levels.
In addition to his role as Senate President, Galvano also chaired the Bay Area Legislative Delegation. Through his influence there, he worked with House members who managed bills in the other chamber.
Notably, Galvano this year decided to host the BALD’s pre-Session meeting at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. It was there Tampa Bay lawmakers unanimously named a red tide institute at Mote as the top regional priority of the year.
It worked, and the bill sailed through this year.
“It was important we had a facility that had years of research background on the mitigation, remediation and prevention of red tide,” Galvano said.
But he also said turning Mote into Red Tide Central will strengthen a network of academic connections. Scientists at USF, Florida State University and Florida Gulf Coast University all study algal blooms and work with Mote. Similarly, Mote holds a longtime relationship with the state Department of Environmental Protection.
“To have all of that coming together and being coordinated, sharing accurate information, is going to make a big difference,” he said.
Of course, plenty of statewide actions also will benefit the region. As an example, Galvano notes this year’s approval of a hemp program provides new crop options for agriculture in Southwest Florida.
And what about that conservative agenda? Many have noted the Senate this year passed legislation on issues like vouchers, sanctuary cities and free-market health reform, matters that historically came to the Senate to die.
Galvano oversaw the passage of those bills despite the chamber having more Democrats, 17 of 40 Senators, than any time in his Senate career.
But he doesn’t accept the characterization the body was more divided.
“We had a unanimous vote on the budget this year, and I think that speaks to a lot,” he said.
Sure, some Republican priorities moved across the finish line, but that was possible because the chamber remained respectful and cordial.
“I started with a message of civility and fairness,” Galvano said, “and that’s how we treated everyone in the Senate and across the hall and down at the Plaza level. That’s the way that people in this business should be treated.
“It was important to me that we be an example for the nation and to show the contrast in the way we operate versus how they operate in Washington, D.C., When you start with that, you are able to get things done at a level that you cannot achieve when people are engaged in gamesmanship and hiding the ball.”