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Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Florida Lawmakers Advance Bills Limiting Local Power On Guns, Clean Energy And Disaster Orders

 A proposed bill would limit local governments' ability to issue emergency orders during disasters, including wearing masks or restaurant restrictions.
Al Diaz Jr.
Miami Herald
A proposed bill would limit local governments' ability to issue emergency orders during disasters, including wearing masks or restaurant restrictions.

The bills would set new rules on gun laws, emergency orders and clean energy.

Florida lawmakers advanced a suite of proposed bills that would limit local authority when it comes to guns; emergency orders during hurricanes, disasters or pandemics; and efforts to require clean energy to deal with climate change.

Falling along party lines, the measure would make it more difficult for local jurisdictions to adopt measures that defy the Republican-controlled state.

“We have seen not only throughout the country, but throughout our state, different iterations of executive orders dealing with the removal of freedom, rights,” said Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican, in introducing a bill to limit local emergency orders.

Under the bill, orders would expire after 10 days unless elected commissions and city councils vote to extend them.

In other bills, the state’s broad gun law — that forbids local authorities from passing local measures — would make it clear those restrictions also apply to non-written policies. The law was prompted after Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw refused to return a gun until the owner obtained a court order.

Another bill prevents local authorities trying to expand clean energy from limiting the use of fossil fuels.

“It's pretty exciting to see some bills for liberty and protecting people's individual freedom,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican. “I want to thank you for putting a belt and suspenders on these things that need protection, that are getting run over.”

But critics say lawmakers are over-reaching the state’s authority.

“Local governments should have the authority to pass public safety laws or rules that respond to local needs,” said Boca Raton Democrat Sen. Tina Polsky. “Florida currently prohibits local governments from regulating firearms in almost any way.”

The proposed bill would also allow anyone who challenges a local gun law to collect attorney fees, even without a court ruling, she said.

“The bill would encourage people to file harassing lawsuits against local governments, and enrich gun lobby lawyers and paid experts and leave Florida taxpayers on the hook for these expenses,” Polsky said. “This bill would increase litigation, not decrease it.”

In the two bills protecting fossil fuels, local jurisdictions that try to promote clean energy by passing rules on building efficiency or carbon emissions would not be allowed to limit the use of petroleum and natural gas.

“If they want to keep doing the solar, wind, energy efficient electric vehicle things, they are certainly allowed to,” said Sen. Travis Hutson. “They just can't cut off the consumer’s choice of what's in place currently today.”

But Sen. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat, worried limiting local power would slow the transition to clean energy.

“Isn't a movement toward green energy a necessity to stem the tide of climate change and its potentially disastrous effects on Florida?” she asked. “You can understand where cities are a little concerned because until recently, we weren't even allowed to say the word climate change in this capital.”

Critics say the wave of bills, particularly limiting in the wake of the pandemic, signal a critical threat to local authority.

“We think this is an overreaction to the current pandemic and sets precedents as to how we'll be able to address emergencies in the future,” Tonnette Graham, a policy director with the Florida Association of Counties, said of the bill limiting emergency orders. “Passing this bill might just be the beginning of the ending of home rule.”

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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.