Florida mayors came to the Capitol this week to circle the wagons.
Local governments are complaining about what they consider to be the biggest legislative power grab in modern history.
A handful of mayors gathered on the Fourth Floor of the Capitol with a simple message – Vote No on House Bill 17. Behind them were the big doors to the Senate Chamber, but the mayors say -- at least metaphorically -- their backs are to the wall.
Their biggest concern is Palm Bay Representative Randy Fine’s proposal to preempt all local business regulations, unless authorized by state law. Palm Shores Mayor Carol McCormack says the rookie Republican is essentially clueless about how government works.
“I think you have a lot of new legislators who want to come up here and make a name for themselves, maybe. But I think it’s overzealous legislation and not really understanding what home rule really means.”
Critics of the legislation insist government closest to the people governs best. And the Florida Constitution appears to back that up. In 1968, voters approved an amendment establishing home rule.
The problem dates back to the 1800s and early 1900s. As the country grew, local governments had to rely on states for all their legal power. Legislatures were flooded with requests for special acts or “general laws of local application.” Home rule gave local governments the power to govern themselves, as long as their ordinances didn’t conflict with federal or state law.
HB-17 turns all that on its head, says the Florida League of Cities’ Scott Dudley.
“What happened after that is that when the Legislature wants to preempt a local government, they have to pass a bill to do it. This actually reverses it where if we want to regulate something, we have to go to the Legislature and get specific permission in order to do that.”
Fine may be a freshman, and HB-17 may be his first bill, but Fine is hardly clueless. The millionaire owner of a casino management business is a Harvard MBA. Fine says he just wants to look at economic development in a different way.
“We’ve been having a broad discussion in this room and frankly around the Legislature and around the state about the nature of economic development and I think we have focused disproportionately around one topic, the idea of incentives, but there are many ways a state can compete.”
Fine says predictable, reasonable and uniform regulation would add to Florida’s corporate appeal.
“One of the way the states can compete is their regulatory climate. We frankly compete in other ways. We don’t have an income tax and that appeals to many people in thinking about coming to Florida.”
Fine says he deliberately left out which business regulations the bill would preempt because he wanted to give local governments flexibility. That raises constitutional issues about vagueness.
And it leaves critics, like Tallahassee Democratic Representative Loranne Ausley, grasping for examples.
“I think it’s important for us, if we’re voting on this, for us to know, is it possible for us to get a list, to know what is expressly, already authorized, you know, what we’re, what we’re looking at here.”
Critics immediately turn to zoning, and whether local governments would still be able to bar or regulate not-so family friendly enterprises.
“In this community, you will notice, we do not have adult entertainment in Leon County, and that was an ordinance that was passed in the 80s, the local government made that decision. Is it your position that that’s a zoning decision and that that would not be impacted by this?”
Fine says he’s been assured the bill wouldn’t leave local governments that helpless.
“I wouldn’t support a bill if local governments weren’t able to continue to regulate that business, so we were able to make sure that was the case.”
Fine promised a House panel he would make sure all their questions were answered. But the League’s Dudley says Fine’s bill isn’t the only assault on home rule. Community redevelopment agencies are under attack, as well as local government control of telecommunications, and ride hailing aps like Uber and Lyft.
One of the biggest concerns is what HB-17 would mean for local power to protect the environment. Sierra Club lobbyist David Cullen uses the examples of fertilizer ordinances that keep pollution out of waterways. Fine’s bill would create an expensive trap, Cullen warns.
“It is so much cheaper and so much more effective. But if you don’t allow that to be controlled, then those local communities are the ones that are on the hook under the Clean Water Act, they’re the ones that have to pay the fines.”
HB-17 has cleared its first committee, but the Senate doesn’t appear interested. However, the Florida League of Cities is still on high alert.