The Legislature’s extreme moves to stamp out local laws

plastic bag on roadside
Lawmakers don't want locals to have local laws - like banning plastic bags and straws. Julie Hauserman photo

Republicans in the Florida Legislature have increasingly moved to strip away control from local governments, and this year may have the most extreme proposal yet – a bill to prevent any local government from regulating businesses.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Retail Federation and Associated Industries of Florida are backing it. The Florida Retail Federation has sued local governments that have banned plastic straws, bags and polystyrene containers. Now, big-business groups  that gave generously during campaign season are turning to their friends in the state Legislature for what opponents call a “sledgehammer approach.”

One bill would prevent any local government from banning plastic straws. Another would impose hefty financial penalties on local governments that lose court cases when businesses challenge local regulations. Another bill would prevent local governments from removing or changing war veteran memorials and monuments on public properties – which could effect efforts to get rid of Confederate monuments now considered by many as offensive and racist.

State Rep. Michael Grant, a Republican from Port Charlotte who is sponsoring the measure to stop local government from regulating businesses altogether, says “The intent of the bill is to save small business owners money” and “when you have a series of regulations from one county to another that differ, it increases the cost to businesses.” The measure would allow local governments to maintain some regulations but only by getting a supermajority vote from the city council or county commission.

Rich Templin of the Florida AFL-CIO has a different theory: Big businesses, he says “now see the Legislature as a one-stop shop to stamp out anything that they don’t like, or anything that they think hurts their bottom line.”

While many locally elected officials protesting the attack on local governments are Democrats, the controversy over the state usurping local control transcends partisan politics.

“Republicans were taught in the crib that local government is the best government,” Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, a lifelong Republican, said at an event last year. “They must be drinking some strange water in Tallahassee.”

Lake County Republican State Rep. Anthony Sabatini is sponsoring a measure which some say would have a chilling effect by requiring local governments to pay attorney fees, costs and damages if a business proves in court that state law trumps a local one.

“I think it’s very common sense when you are forced to sue in order to ascertain your rights and get the local government jurisdiction to act according to Florida law, that you would be awarded your own attorney’s fees,” Sabatini says.

But Martin County Commission Chair Ed Ciampi says the measure leaves the door open for retribution against local officials by state lawmakers.

“There’s really no option back the other way,” Ciampi says. “It’s not like the county commission could launch an investigation against a state representative or a state senator.”

If this proposal were already law, Miami Beach’s government could be contemplating some hefty legal fees. That city pushed back against a state law that prevents local governments from setting their own minimum wage. Miami Beach passed a measure in 2016 that would have ultimately raised the local minimum wage to $13.31 by 2021 (the current state minimum wage is $8.46). A legal dispute went all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.

Sabatini’s bill could also hit the city of Coral Gables, which was so concerned about trash on the beach and plastic polluting the ocean that it banned plastic bags and polystyrene containers in 2016. The state and the Florida Retail Federation challenged the ban, and the case is in court.

St. Petersburg, Miami Beach and Fort Myers Beach banned single-use plastic straws, and now Sabatini and Rep. Randy Fine, a Brevard County Republican, have filed legislation to prevent any local government from banning plastic straws.

If Grant’s bill to ban all local regulation of businesses were to become law, “it takes away the ability of counties and cities to create unique neighborhoods and communities,” says Cragin Mosteller from the Florida Association of Counties.

Take for instance, anti-discrimination laws protecting the LGBTQ community. An effort to pass statewide protections keeps falling short in the Legislature, but more than three dozen local governments have passed LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws.

“That would be preempted,” Mosteller says. “Counties wouldn’t be able to take that step.”

Regulating strip clubs and exotic dancers also would no longer be a community decision, she adds.

Another thing Grant’s bill proposes: Having the state take over regulating and licensing professions and occupations.

The bill to prevent local governments from removing or changing war monuments is troubling to Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, the only black member of the commission. He led the debate about removing a Confederate monument that sat in front of the Hillsborough County courthouse.

“If this would have been in place (in 2017) I would not have been able to remove that monument…so I think this is absolutely wrong,” Miller said of the proposal last week. “It’s a local government’s prerogative that if they have a Confederate statue or a Confederate flag or whatever the case may be, that if they feel that the time has come and gone to have those things that are divisive in their city or their county- then that particular mayor or city council or county commission has the right to remove those kinds of things.”

When asked last week about the Legislature’s attacks on local laws. Gov. Ron DeSantis said he generally doesn’t really care what different communities do, but he draws the line on ordinances that hurt Florida’s economy.

“Sometimes (usurping local laws) makes sense. Sometimes it doesn’t,” DeSantis said. “I would not support preemption (of local laws) just because I have a policy disagreement about what somebody did. It would need to be that I think it has a broader effect beyond the local jurisdiction for me to want to get involved.”

To fight back against these increasing attacks on local government’s “home rule,” state Rep. Joy Goff-Marcil, a Democrat from Maitland, filed a resolution this week to create a Florida Constitutional Amendment requiring a two-thirds majority vote of the Legislature before the state could preempt a local regulation.

Goff-Marcil served two terms as a city councilmember in Maitland before being elected to the House last November. She says she’s seen the negative impact of a state government “too big and reckless in its attack on home rule.”

“Our local officials serve closest to the people,” she says. “and it should take more than a simple majority of lawmakers to shut them out of the process.”

 

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