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Group Criticizes Trend To Limit Local Power

Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, said he was encouraged when Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a bill last year that would have blocked local governments from banning plastic straws.

TALLAHASSEE — A Tallahassee research group wants state lawmakers to temper a trend of tying the hands of city and county officials by “preempting” local regulations.

The non-profit group Integrity Florida issued a report Monday raising concerns that lawmakers, with the backing of powerful lobbying groups, are strategically attacking home-rule authority on issues ranging from sunscreen bans to regulating businesses.

Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, said he was encouraged when Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a bill last year that would have blocked local governments from banning plastic straws. However, Wilcox said a trend of preemption measures is growing, with 119 bills filed during the past three legislative sessions that included some form of preemption and nearly 20 filed for the 2020 session, which begins next week.

“There are definite benefits of preemption, but it's our opinion and I think the report found, the consequences and the potential harm to the home rule authority of local government outweighs those benefits,” Wilcox said. “It just needs to be done more rationally and not enthusiastically.”

In his veto of the plastic straw measure (HB 771), DeSantis said efforts by some local communities, including Sanibel, Fort Myers Beach and Miami Beach, to prohibit single-use plastic straws haven’t “frustrated any state policy or harmed the state’s interests.”

“In fact, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has encouraged Florida residents, schools and businesses to reduce plastic straw use,” DeSantis wrote. “Under these circumstances, the state should simply allow local communities to address this issue through the political process. Citizens who oppose plastic straw ordinances can seek recourse by electing people who share their views.”

Preemption bills for the 2020 session have been filed by Republicans and Democrats. Those bills deal with issues such as local occupational licensing (HB 3), permitting standards for mobile home parks (HB 647), vacation rental properties (HB 1011) and home-based businesses (SB 778).

Already drawing heavy attention has been a proposal (HB 113 and SB 172) that would prevent local governments from banning certain types of sunscreens and cosmetics. The proposal would prevent Key West from enforcing a ban on sunscreens containing chemicals that could be harmful to coral reefs.

Business groups have argued that state preemptions are needed for consistency and to clear up patchworks of regulations at the local level.

Wilcox said one of the most “dangerous” efforts that has gained traction in the committee process the past two sessions is aimed at curbing local business regulations. The proposals have drawn criticism, for example, that they could block ordinances that prohibit “puppy mills” or the regulation of fertilizer use near waterways.

“It’s a trend that should be concerning to those of us who believe in the traditional conservative principle that government governs best when it is closest to the people,” Wilcox said. “A lot of times, local governments are being responsive to the desires of their constituents.” 

But preemption is also used to impose ideological views, often those of conservative communities on more progressive areas, said Integrity Florida research associate Alan Stonecipher.

“We end up with a situation where predominantly rural legislators are blocking action by predominantly liberal cities and minorities,” Stonecipher said. “So, you have a bunch of white men, you know, saying what can be done in a particular town or city.”

Rep. Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican who is set to become the House speaker in 2022, said during an October 2017 radio interview in Flagler County regarding vacation rentals that more preemption measures should be expected to curb “rogue” local governments.

“What you’re seeing … is the concentration of support for a more center-left or left-wing viewpoint, and this is again not Flagler County, but our major cities, San Francisco, New York,” Renner said during the appearance. “The Democrat Party has really become a party of dense urban areas and the rest of the country tends to be more conservative, more Republican. So, part of the fight, part of the sub-context of this whole discussion, is the reason we think they’re going rogue is because it’s Bernie Sanders in charge of your local city government or county government in some cases, and doing things that really are sharp departures from the way the country has become so prosperous, so strong and so free, and so states are stepping in to say, look, we’re not going to let you destroy all the good work that we’re doing and all the economic growth we’re creating in the state for people by trying to ban or shut down particular industries that you don’t like.”

While acknowledging changes would be difficult, Integrity Florida suggested lawmakers require two-thirds or super-majority votes to approve preemption bills, that preemption bills be limited to single subjects and to prohibit the use of fines or punitive actions against local officials and governments that break preemptions.

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