Five questions for Senator David Simmons

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Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland, is known as a policy wonk. He chairs the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee and sits on two appropriations subcommittees, the Rules Committee and the Select Committee on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, among others. He was first elected to the Florida House in 2000, served four terms and was elected to the Senate in 2010. He’s one of 20 senators who received two-year terms in the new reapportionment plan, and so faces re-election next year.

An attorney, Simmons is the financial managing partner of de Beaubien, Knight, Simmons, Mantzaris, & Neal, LLP. He’s known for being at the center of controversial legislation — including, this session, bills dealing with Citizens Property Insurance Corp., alimony and parental control of failing schools — often with a potential compromise.

The News Service of Florida has five questions for David Simmons:

Q: You helped draft the “stand your ground” legislation in 2005 and, since Trayvon Martin’s death, have objected to how the law has been portrayed. Talk about that.

SIMMONS: In 2005, I saw the problem when Rep. (Dennis) Baxley (R-Ocala) came to me with the issue of stand your ground and the idea that truly innocent victims were not given the opportunity, the option, in the state of Florida to either stand their ground and defend themselves or flee. Florida had the rule prior to 2005 that a person was required to flee when they were attacked and deadly force was used against them by a criminal.

I considered that to be anti-woman. It was against what was fair for a person who was a victim. And so I was the main drafter of what is now known as the stand-your-ground law that 23 other states have adopted. It’s a common-sense solution to a problem in which we do not want to elevate the value of the life of a criminal above the life of a truly innocent person. The United States Supreme Court said that when somebody is attacked and someone has got an uplifted knife to the victim’s throat, that the courts should not second-guess the decision to either disarm the assailant or to flee by the victim.

That’s a piece of legislation that has, of course, been in the news tremendously as a result of the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman criminal prosecution that is going on in Sanford. And of course, that case turned out, as I predicted, not to be a stand-your-ground case because George Zimmerman claimed that he was pinned to the ground and had no opportunity to flee, and so therefore it didn’t even implicate stand your ground.

Q: This session you backed HB 655, which prevents local jurisdictions from making sick pay mandatory. Critics said the bill was an attack on local control — what do you think about that?

SIMMONS: I’m generally in favor of local control, but there are certain matters that are most appropriately dealt with by the state. That’s the reason we have a state that provides for uniformity of certain regulations. Many traffic regulations, for example, are controlled by unanimity of the state. There are a whole series of matters that need to be uniform throughout our state.

One of those is, of course, the regulation of sick-pay employee benefits. I felt like having a patchwork of different rules that would be imposed upon employers throughout this state would make one business in one community more disadvantaged than his or her competitors. And I also felt that it created a very, very difficult scenario for an employer who has offices in more than one particular local government. This is one of the areas that cries out for uniformity, and I’m glad that the Senate agreed and the House of Representatives agreed, and that the governor signed the bill.

Q: Were you surprised when Gov. Scott vetoed the alimony bill? Do you think he made a mistake?

SIMMONS: Oh, I don’t think he made a mistake. I think there were differences of opinion and he believed that there needed to be more work on this area.

While there were many good aspects of the alimony bill, there were portions of it that still had some rough edges as we were moving through the process. And while I voted for it, I voiced concerns to Sen. (Kelli) Stargel (the bill sponsor) about certain parts of it. It was one of those cases where I went ahead and said, “The good parts of it outweighed the bad.” But that’s sort of like beauty — it’s in the eye of the beholder. I think the governor felt that the bad outweighed the good.

I think it’s time to go back and look at it again and try to clean up some of the rough edges that were in that bill.

Q: On the bill known as the “parent trigger,” you proposed an amendment that would have made local school boards the final authority on choosing turnaround options for failing schools. That almost carried the day — do you think we’ll see it next year?

SIMMONS: I don’t know whether it’ll come back. I know this: There was a lot of demagoguery about that particular issue. And there was a lot of concern that was at the same time justified.

Certainly the amendment that I proposed went a long way towards resolving any of the issues relating to whether or not this was some kind of Trojan horse, some kind of effort by charter schools to take over failing public schools. And the easy solution to that problem was to simply state that the decision that would be made by a school board would be final and complete. And so therefore, if the school board, which is obviously a public entity, is in control of what can be done with that public school, then that completely does away with the argument that a charter school can come in somehow, by virtue of Florida law, and take over a failing public school.

The solution that I ended up with — that being that the school board would be in total control of the solutions that were available — also permitted the parents to get together and voice their concerns. Although the school board would remain the final decision-maker with respect to the options that would be available, they would at least have to listen to the parents who would get together and voice what they recommended as a solution to a failing school. Obviously, nobody wants a continually repetitive failing public school.

I know there was a lot of visceral opposition to any kind of what you’d call parent trigger. It couldn’t be called a parent-trigger bill after I made my amendment and Sen. Stargel accepted it. It didn’t trigger anything. All it did was a parental input piece of legislation. There were many people on the part of the school boards who came up to me and privately said, “This is the solution.”

Q: You usually come into a controversy with a workable compromise. Is that your general approach to life?

SIMMONS: I sure try. If you go back from the time I was in the House of Representatives, in 2002, I saw that multiple DUI offenders were getting back on the roads after they had been convicted of DUIs and again killing or injuring people on the roads. The theory that prior to that was prevalent was, “They’re going to have to drive, but we’ve got to teach them to restrain themselves and to have the self-control that they won’t drive while they’re drunk.” I had the view that why should the rest of the people out on the road be guinea pigs for people who are multiple DUI offenders to be back out on the road? They’re supposed to have self-control, but they don’t. And the empirical evidence was that they had a high propensity of being repeat offenders.

I said, “Let’s put interlock devices, which are Breathalyzers, on the cars of multiple DUI offenders,” and we passed that in 2002. Then the federal government picked up on it, it spread all across the nation and now has resulted in thousands and thousands of lives being saved. It’s now assumed to be the way that things should be done. And that’s just a common-sense solution to an everyday problem.

Prior to 2006, there was a problem with, basically, junk being put in the Florida Constitution. And I proposed and was able to push through the requirement that it take 60 percent of the voters to change an organic document such as our constitution.

The bill that I did two years ago that was renewed this year, which is providing an extra hour a day of reading for the 100 lowest-performing elementary schools The results just came in on this, and they’re very positive. Very positive. They’re showing significant improvement.

The extra hour a day is critically important for them because those children are the same ones who are behind in elementary school and in pre-school. They’re the same ones who end up dropping out of school and becoming unemployed. And they’re the same ones who end up in our prisons.

If we’re going to change society, we’re going to have to change the way we put a hand out to these at-risk children, to give them the help that they need so that they can catch up with their peers. And they’re totally capable of it. They just need that extra attention that the extra hour a day goes a long way in doing.

Yes, I’ve been involved in many of the major issues that have confronted the Florida Legislature, and I’ve tried to provide a helpful, common-sense solution to the problems.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.