Thursday, December 14, 2017
Politics

DeWitt: Two things to watch in Hernando, Pasco — Sen. Wilton Simpson, sinkholes

State Sen. Wilton Simpson and sinkholes.

These subjects might not immediately grab you, but if you live in this part of Florida, they probably should.

Sinkholes are our special scourge, a black mark on the real estate of Hernando and Pasco counties and on the character of homeowners who cashed in on questionable insurance claims.

Simpson represents most of these two counties, and because the circumstances of his election last year give him the option of serving 10 years rather than the usual eight, and because he's shaping up as someone who could go on to a higher office and because he comes off as a super-straight arrow unlikely to be derailed by scandal, it's a good bet he'll be representing us somehow, some way, for a long while.

"He listens to people. He does his homework," said Jake Varn, a well-connected Tallahassee lawyer. "All the stars seem to be aligning for him to be a superstar in the Senate."

That, of course, requires getting along with powerful people in Tallahassee, and one of the most powerful and conservative of these people, House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel, is on the payroll of Simpson's asbestos and mold removal business.

But Simpson doesn't agree with all of Weatherford's hard-right ideas, including the wholesale rejection of billions in federal Medicaid money.

Also, after a recent visit to Simpson's egg farm in Trilby, I came away thinking he's trying to make some headway on environmental issues.

Egg factory is more like it, but a surprisingly clean and orderly one considering it houses nearly a million chickens and produces about 800,000 eggs a day.

Simpson sponsored Everglades restoration legislation last year, and the $378 million springs protection bill he is working on this year gained credibility with me after it was attacked by big development and agricultural interests.

He's also got a bill to fund a comprehensive study on reclaimed water, about which he can sound fanatical. He'd like to see a chain of massive reservoirs for highly treated wastewater built down the center of the state.

If he makes headway on this plan, it could save groundwater but ensure builders and farmers they have the water they need. That makes it a good issue for someone who wants to advance his public service credentials and please entrenched powers.

Which brings us to his sinkhole bill, SB 416.

It creates a pool of repair companies that can warrant and bond their work. Customers who file sinkhole claims would have to choose from these firms, giving them confidence that the work would be done by reputable companies, Simpson said.

Critics, primarily lawyers, say it gives an inside track to big, well-connected companies and gives Citizens Property Insurance Corp. too much power to review these companies and pick favorites.

Also, these lawyers say, the real purpose of the warranties is to discourage lawsuits.

But the courts are clogged with sinkhole lawsuits, and that's partly because they are the handiest way to get around an earlier law that tried to prevent the highly damaging practice of accepting claim money and leaving houses unrepaired.

So maybe this is a favor to Citizens. But maybe, also, it will do some good.

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