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The Sunshine Economy

How two bills would rewrite the relationship between businesses and local governments in Florida

Miami Beach protest.jpg
Verónica Zaragovia
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Hospitality industry workers rallied against banning alcohol after 2 a.m. in Miami Beach outside of Miami Beach City Hall on Oct. 13, 2021. In November, 56% of voters OKed a non-binding referendum to move last call earlier.

The latest Tallahassee Takeover podcast from WLRN News explores the building friction over business and local rules. The battle over booze in Miami Beach may be its first test.

What are three hours worth? What are the hours from 2 until 5 o’clock in the morning worth – in financial terms and for quality of life?

That’s one way to think about a decision before Miami Beach city commissioners. Last fall, 56% of voters in the city supported an effort to move last call for alcohol on South Beach from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m., erasing three hours of business for bars, restaurants and nightclubs.

Commissioners don’t have to make any changes. The vote was a non-binding referendum. It was essentially a poll of voters. But they are moving toward making some kind of decision to put new limits on the hours of selling booze near the beach. Already, they narrowly approved prohibiting liquor sales after 2 a.m. in South Beach from March 7-21. The area includes all business south of 16th Street.

However, that temporary rule is on board after a judge ruled Tuesday against the city. Miami Beach is appealing that decision.

While this is going on, Florida Republican lawmakers are moving toward final votes on a pair of bills designed to raise the stakes for local governments when they put new rules on businesses.

Just how these bills may collide with efforts to dial back selling booze on South Beach remains to be seen. Yet it is just the latest effort by state lawmakers to limit the power of local governments.

LISTEN MORE: Tallahassee Takeover Podcast

Dan Gelber, the mayor of Miami Beach, wants last call for alcohol to be 2 a.m. for most places in Miami Beach, including many of the places that currently can serve until 5 a.m. He isn’t too worried about the possibility of bars and nightclubs suing the city if they have to shut off the taps and stop the bottle service earlier than they do now.

"It's not about the money," Gelber said. "You can't pay me for the branding diminishment and the public safety issues that we're covering."

It is about the money for lawmakers supporting these measures. One would allow a business to sue a local government for damages if a new regulation hurts its profits by at least 15%.

Gelber thinks the local control of when liquor can be sold would be exempt. "There are state statutes that give us the authority to control alcohol hours. Those are specific and they shouldn't be included, because under that theory, (a business) could simply say, 'Listen, we don't really care about anything. We can do whatever we want in this, and you can't do it if it's going to impact our business.'"

It isn't immediately clear if local liquor rules would fall under the new legislation or not.

Joe Garcia thinks bars and nightclubs impacted by an earlier last call in Miami Beach may use these new bills if they become law. Garcia is a former Democratic congressman who is a lobbyist for the Miami Beach Tourism and Hospitality Coalition, which was formed this year to oppose rolling back liquor hours.

"Of course, they would have cause of action. There's no dearth of attorneys here who would like to sue a deep-pocketed (defendant) like the city."

Garcia called the efforts to reduce the hours of selling liquor overreach. "It is not only to the detriment of these businesses, it's to the detriment of what is one of the greatest miracles in entertainment in the last 50 years of American hospitality."

One of the bills also would require local governments to assess the economic impact of local rules. A 2021 study paid for the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce found a ban on liquor sales after 2 a.m. in Miami Beach would lead to a $29 million drop in liquor sales per year. It estimated the total loss of $227 million to hospitality revenue.

"The studies that they pay for say, if we close three bars on Ocean Drive at 2 a.m., Ocean Drive will fall into the ocean and will be gone forever," said Gelber.

A 2020 study paid for by the city estimated taxpayers spent $6 million a year on extra city spending, such as law enforcement, in the South Beach area.

Residents "have a right to not have to endure this," Gelber said.

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In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.
Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.