Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, from his office in Florida’s capitol,  wields tremendous power with his gavel. The Bradenton politician helped secure millions for red tide research and Southwest Florida construction projects. He managed in 2019 to win approval for a massive (and controversial) expansion of toll roads, and helped usher an ambitious education reform package along the way. After climbing the ranks of House leadership before coming to the Senate, Galvano now heads into his last legislative session. SRQ magazine spoke to him in his Florida capitol office about what’s left to do.

SRQ:  It's felt like civility has been the real hallmark of your time as Senate President. Why is it such a priority?  Bill Galvano: Because the world today is becoming less civil daily, whether it be through social media or the 24-hour news cycle. We watch folks fighting with one another, making accusatory statements about each other, debating personalities as opposed to getting work done in politics for the people who are their constituents. Washington, DC, is the worst offender in that regard. I’m very proud of the work we’ve done in the Florida State Legislature. As the atmosphere becomes more challenging, it is more important that we show the world that we conduct ourselves in a manner that the people of Florida deserve.

Are there regional priorities you want to make sure get approved while you still have the power of the president’s gavel? We will continue to work on infrastructure issues and regional transportation projects for the Tampa Bay area. Everything from the colleges in the region to the universities that we have out there. There’s some environmental issues that are important to me, not the least of which is continuing work on red tide and some restoration of sea life.


When the Red Tide Institute at Mote Marine Laboratory won funding last year, we heard government often provides funding after algal blooms but then ignores the issue. Is there still political will for research and water-quality projects? I think so. That’s why the funding for the red tide initiative was a three-year commitment. I had an opportunity to spend some time with Dr. [Michael] Crosby [Mote CEO] about the status of where they’re going. He himself said it’s mixed. The good news is we haven’t had a major outbreak, but the bad news is some of these ideas, it’s hard to test them without one. But the focus is still there. Overall, environmental issues are going to still continue to do very well in the budget and from a policy perspective, as they did last year. Red tide is a water-quality issue itself. I am interested in how we’re capturing runoff from the northern part of the state and capturing it in the storage wells north of Lake Okeechobee. As those releases come out of the lake, those nutrient spikes that change when it goes from fresh to brackish to salt water connect everything to each other from a water-quality standpoint.


Ahead of session, we’ve seen Republicans in Tallahassee want to address climate change, which seemed like a dirty phrase a few years ago. Is there a greater reception in Florida to addressing matters like sea-level rise? Yes, but more about asking what are the impacts with sea-level rise? That leads to coastal resilience and how we plan. I’ve had enough conversations with elected officials from coastal areas, local and otherwise, to know we are making sure we are resilient in many different ways. If we are steady and reasonable and not creating some sort of panic or trying to overly assign blame, the steps we take will help us be more stable.


Will we continue to see expansion of school choice in Florida? We took some significant steps last session. I’m proud and supportive of the work the Senate did in that regard. What I also appreciated was that we did it in a balanced approach because I believe in empowering families and providing choice, but we also recognize the value of our traditional public schools and we provided significant funding. There very well may be an effort to expand, streamline and build, but the big lift was done last session with the empowerment scholarship itself. The individual at the Delegation meeting you are talking about wants our teachers being paid what they think should be paid. There’s work to be done, however, in terms of what the appropriate number is and how it works mechanically. You will recall Representative Newt Newton [a Democrat] got very engaged in that conversation and pushed back [Manatee School Board Member] David Miner, saying don’t come point the finger at us about raises when we had significant increases in the base student allocation. The collective bargaining that takes place is a local issue.


You were an advocate for consolidation with the University of South Florida. How do you feel things are going with that? It’s starting to move in a much, much smoother direction. I give Speaker-Designate Chris Sprowls a lot of credit for engaging and making sure recommendations are being followed to the largest extent possible. I keep in touch with [USF Sarasota-Manatee Chancellor Karen] Holbrook and others, and they are quick to let me know when things are on track or when they’re off track. One of the motivators for me that people overlook was we had a budget year where USF “Proper” received in the 30s of millions of dollars, and USF Sarasota-Manatee was actually going into its reserves. So this is a merger in access and in funding. It’s a merger of a lot of the attributes that weren’t necessarily shared with the other campuses. If you have a university with merged satellite campuses that is dependent upon the success of all of those campuses in order to maintain its performance funding, leadership is going to share resources.
Do you have plans to seek another office when your time here is done? My plan right now is to be the best possible Senate President I can and empower the senators. I’m playing the hole I’m on, as my dad [golf pro Phil Galvano] would advise.


Looking back at two decades of work here in Tallahassee, what do you think have been the most important things you’ve done for your community? Some of the most meaningful legislation I’ve worked on has come from constituents I represent. I think about the contamination notification issue when we had the spill in the Tallevast area. This community was unaware there were toxins in their water, and they helped me change the law. There’s the transfer station authority that we created for our region, the creation of the Bay Area Legislative Delegation, the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority. There’s been a coalescing of work as a region in regard to red tide. I’ve enjoyed representing the area that I have. My district, at one point, included seven counties, interior counties. There was a lot that we did there in terms of job creation, rebuilding some schools, citrus research. I’ve always had great teammates on the stuff I’ve done and the legislative process is a collaborative process. Nothing gets done unless you’re able to work with each other and the local folks back home.


How can you balance the work of Senate President and still do your job as a regional lawmaker as well? By taking what steps I can to stay connected. I remind my district staff that at the end of the day, the most important work we do is constituent service. The reality is most people don’t follow the complex issues that take place. But to the person who’s trying to get an occupational license or may have a problem in their neighborhood, or wants help, needs help navigating an agency, that’s going to make a real difference. You are right to point out that it’s a balancing act. One of the challenges of American politics is that the higher you rise in leadership, the less time you’re able to spend with the people who elected you there in the first place. There have been examples throughout the nation where powerful politicians, who could have done tremendous things for their constituencies, end up getting unseated because of a lack of presence. I have tried throughout my whole career not to allow that to happen. We specifically scheduled time for me to talk with my commissioners publicly and privately, to meet with other interested community leaders. It helps if you also have a delegation that works together and understands what the local issues are—and most of those are funding, so they find their way to my desk one way or another.