Overreach? Local leaders fight proposals in FL Legislature to control police budgets and local projects

Protesters demonstrated in Columbus, Ohio, in solidarity with nationwide protests against the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. Credit: Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images

Twenty-eight elected officials from around Florida sent a letter to the Capitol Tuesday opposing Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “combating public disorder” initiative, saying it interferes in their local budgeting processes in ways that could force cuts in services or increases in taxes.

The measure, CS/HB1, is set for debate in the House of Representatives Thursday and a vote on Friday. DeSantis unveiled the initiative last fall following a summer of nationwide civil unrest prompted by the 2020 police killings of unarmed Black people including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

In their letter, the elected officials – representing local entities from Tallahassee to Miami-Dade – condemn HB 1 as “punitive and racist” for its intent to criminalize protests, and further blast it for aiming to tie their hands on local budgeting.

“If passed, the bills would allow the governor and the Cabinet to override locally elected commissioners, council members and mayors if police budgets are decreased, or if funds are redirected from them. The Cabinet could force cities to increase police budgets if they wish, potentially resulting in cities being forced to slash other services or raise taxes in order to balance their budgets,” says the letter, addressed to DeSantis and state legislators.

“The governor and his allies are turning a blind eye to the issues on which Floridians desperately need action,” the letter continues. “Focus your precious time in this session on health care, housing and good jobs, and let local governments do our jobs.”

CS/HB1 defines previously undefined crimes of affray, rioting, and inciting a riot and it creates new crimes and enhanced penalties for aggravated rioting and aggravated inciting of a riot. It increases penalties for assault or battery when committed during a riot and mandates a six-month imprisonment for a person convicted of battery of a law enforcement officer during a riot.

The bill creates the crime of “mob intimidation,” increases penalties for specified burglary and theft offenses committed during a riot, and creates new crimes in which a person defaces or damages a monument. A person charged under this bill would be held in jail overnight without bond.

CS/HB1 also creates an affirmative defense for a person charged in a civil action for causing injuries or damages if the injured person participated in a gathering deemed to be a riot.

Of specific interest to local budgeting authorities, the bill creates a process by which certain people may be able to overturn a local decision to reduce funding to a local law enforcement agency for any reason.

Five of the 28 co-signers held a press conference to elaborate on their concerns about CS/HB1 and other proposals advancing this session that they describe as “overreach” that cancels local governing authority. The proposals include bills to preempt local clean-energy initiatives and to preempt local authority over procurement of public-works contracts that locals would prefer to award to locals who need work.

“This legislative session we have seen an avalanche of proposals designed to undercut local democracy and erase home rule, aggressively pushed by the biggest corporate interests in the state,” said Hallandale Beach Commissioner Sabrina Javellana, speaking at the press conference.

She said too many state lawmakers have never served at the local level and are too much driven by big business and by state and national politics.

About CS/HB1, she said politics around Black Lives Matter, police reform and “disorder” control should not dictate to local governments how they spend local funds on law enforcement, mental-health intervention or any other services.

“We know calls to ‘defund’ the police are a rallying cry for ‘change.’ It is a demand to reimagine public safety. It means prioritizing community needs and community-led safety solutions while ending our reliance on police to respond to things like mental health crises and homelessness — which they should not be asked, nor are they equipped, to do,” Javellana told the Phoenix in an email response.