Florida Republicans embrace the heavy-handed Big Government they once derided

House
The Florida House of Representatives. Credit: CD Davidson-Hiers

OCCUPIED TALLAHASSEE — While our reality show government lurches from atrocity to atrocity, here in the state capital, your imperial Legislature asserts more and more power over your life.

I’m talking about preemption, the Legislature’s favorite laws, the ones overriding local governments when they differ, forbidding cities and counties to do things local people actually want. Things like protecting trees, building low-income housing, banning single-use plastic, stopping discrimination based on sexual orientation, raising the minimum wage, and regulating guns.

As the nonpartisan research group Integrity Florida says in its recent report: “Government action is moved from the entity closes to the people — local governments — and empowers the Legislature.”

IF points out that preemption hamstrings a community’s attempts to help “women, people of color, LGBT people, and those in poverty.”

Preemption isn’t new: Five years ago, the city of Coral Gables decided that restaurants, grocery stores and fast food joints should not use Styrofoam containers.

Styrofoam is not only damned near impossible to recycle (so most of it ends up in landfills), it’s toxic: styrene, the main building block in foam containers, is carcinogenic.

Plus the flame-retardant chemicals sprayed onto Styrofoam leach into the environment, especially water, killing wildlife.

The Florida Retail Federation, which insists it cares about “a healthy and sustainable Florida,” pitched a hissy fit and, in 2016, the state passed laws banning the banning of polystyrene containers.

Of course, Styrofoam won in court.

Last year, dozens of local elected officials sued the state of Florida over the NRA-backed law that allows for them to be removed from office, fined up to $5000 per day, and personally taken to court if they were involved in adoption of firearms ordinances.

Why not be able to shoot your piece in a city park full of dogs and children? What could possibly go wrong?

The Republicans who run state government are convinced that they — and the big money groups that own them — know better than the mayor or the county commissioner you voted for, and they certainly know better than you.

I mean, who are you, little Citizen Loser? You don’t contribute millions to political campaigns; you don’t control billions of dollars; you are nobody.

The somebodies legislative leaders care about include Associated Industries of Florida, smiling enablers of every big polluter in the state, the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, the NRA, the Restaurant and Lodging Association, the Retail Federation, the Chamber of Commerce, developers, Big Fertilizer, Big Sugar, Big Bottled Water, and Big Plastic.

They love preemption. They say it promotes “consistency.”

What they really mean is that, with cities and towns increasingly full of progressives, people with dangerous ideas such as paying a living wage, outlawing puppy mills, regulating firearms, combating prejudice, fighting pollution, protecting the vulnerable and other terrifying Marxist ideas must be reined in.

You don’t want the peasants getting uppity.

They got above themselves in Key West, trying to ban oxybenzone and octinoxate-based sunscreens. The FDA says those chemicals — found in many drugstore sun creams — not only harm coral reefs, they ain’t too good for humans, either.

Hawaii’s banning sunscreen, but what do those people know about Beach Life?

Remember when Florida Republicans used to hate Big Gubmint? They argued that a remotely-imposed, “one size fits all” regulatory state violated the rights of localities to choose how they wanted to live. Besides, they insisted, government should be “close” to the “people.”

Now Florida Republicans are Big Gubmint.

The Florida Legislature tells us that on certain issues we have all the rights in the world: we can rip out acres of mangroves or clear-cut old oak trees (private property rights!), we can compile an arsenal of assault weapons, we can dump a ton of Miracle-Gro on our lawns, we can befoul our oceans.

But a girl under the age of 18 has to get her parents’ consent for an abortion. And a transgender child must not be given the medications she needs.

And our local elected officials — all people who actually live in the towns and cities and counties where issues of poverty, prejudice, gun violence, dirty water, dying wildlife, and destroyed habitats actually take place — find themselves powerless to respond to community concerns.

This isn’t freedom. This isn’t responsive government.

This is authoritarianism.

Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books, most recently Dream State, an historical memoir of her Florida family, and Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She lives in Tallahassee, except for the times she runs off to Great Britain, desperate for a different government to satirize.