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Florida Lawmakers Shift Local Authority To State, One Bill At A Time

The view from the second floor of the Florida Capitol. State lawmakers are routinely passing bills to take power away from local government officials.
Jessica Bakeman/WLRN
The view from the second floor of the Florida Capitol. State lawmakers are routinely passing bills to take power away from local government officials.

The systemic draining of local control is about politics — and it's about money.

State lawmakers in Tallahassee sometimes complain about mandates coming down from Washington — what the Florida leaders refer to as federal overreach.

But the Legislature often does the same thing to local governments throughout the state. In recent years, there's been a flurry of legislation that aims to stop local elected officials from enacting policies that lawmakers don't agree with. It's part of a systemic draining of local control in Florida.

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The Miami Herald's Tallahassee bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas has been reporting on this year's suite of bills, which are moving quickly early during the 2021 session — movement that suggests they are priorities of legislative leaders.

The package includes bills that would target local plans to adopt clean-energy policies or take other steps to mitigate climate change. Another bill would overturn ordinances passed by a supermajority of Key West voters to put limits on cruise ships.

WLRN's Jessica Bakeman recently spoke to Klas about the so-called "preemption" bills, which seek to preempt local government from making their own rules.

The following is an excerpt of their conversation, edited for length and clarity:

BAKEMAN: So the state can just overturn something that's been approved by voters in Key West?

KLAS: You know, that's a really good question. It does seem hard to believe, doesn't it? But that is the intent. And this is not new. It's rare that something so blatant happens.

But back in the 1980s, the preemption law got its legs because there were local governments that imposed restrictions on automatic weapons. And the NRA came to the Legislature and said, 'We don't like these laws.' So the Legislature, I think it was 1983, passed a law that preempted that from happening — from allowing local governments to impose local restrictions on firearms.

So really, it's coming from lobbyists in a lot of ways — lobbyists that don't want to deal with local governments. They are more comfortable dealing with the state government. So they ask the state government to solve a problem they're having on a local level.

It's just a practical thing. When you think about the math, there are 160 legislators, and there are 67 counties and over 400 municipalities. So it's a lot easier for a company to hire, or an industry to hire, a bunch of lobbyists and spend enormous amounts of money to influence the leadership of the House and the Senate than it is to do that same thing in so many municipalities and counties around the state.

These bills are moving quickly, which would suggest that they are a leadership priority. It's possible that they may not pass in the same form they're in now, but it looks like they're on track to pass in some form. We know who supports these bills, but who is fighting against them? Is anyone at the Capitol actively pushing back on this, in particular because of the concern over local control?

Well, the No. 1 opponents are the cities and the counties, and both the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties have come out and said, their only desire is to be able to keep the ability to protect local residents from harm. And that is really something that's embedded in the Florida Constitution: the home rule authority.

On the other side are the people with more money, and that is the industries. The bill that would restrict local governments from imposing regulations on new construction, to discourage people from using fossil fuels and encouraging alternative energy — that proposal, according to a public records request that we did, has been written by lobbyists for the utility industry. It's model legislation that is happening in other states and being promoted by the American Natural Gas Association. So there are some powerful special interests that are behind that measure.

And when it comes to the cruise ship limitation in Key West, we don't have evidence that that's being pushed by the cruise ship industry, but it's a logical connection.

You're talking about some bills that have to do with climate change — preempting local governments from taking steps to try to fight against climate change. I know there have been some other examples in the past where the Legislature didn't want local governments to be able to ban a certain type of sunscreen that hurts coral reef or to ban the use of plastic straws. These are very highly-politicized issues. And I'm wondering if this idea of preempting local governments is about politics?

It does appear that there is a bit of that at play. There's a watchdog group called Integrity Florida that has done a research report on some of these preemption bills. And it does appear, in their assessment, that many of these bills are intended to go after local governments that are trending blue or Democratic, while the Legislature is solidly held by Republicans. They've said that Republicans in the Legislature consider these rogue cities that are out to adopt progressive ordinances that Republicans disagree with. Now, I've talked to Republican leaders and, of course, they deny that that is their goal.

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Republican from Naples, said this during a recent interview with you: "Most local governments don't pass stupid ordinances, but there are some jurisdictions that have passed really stupid ordinances. The problem is, in order to get rid of it, you have to sue them. But you know how long it takes to get to the courts?"

So I'm wondering what you make of that. It seems like she's saying the quiet part out loud, like, 'We don't want to have to deal with this later, after an ordinance has been passed. So we just want to stop it from ever happening.'

So what the Legislature is is trying to do, or what they see their role as, is to proactively prevent local governments from doing things they think are, in her words, "stupid."

It does seem to me that it's a one-size-fits-all approach. That is really not why we have tiered government. People elect their local officials, and they expect them to respond to their local problems. But if the state Legislature has tied their hands, it really makes it difficult for elected officials to be responsive. Local citizens should be able to hold their elected officials accountable when they do "stupid" things. And they shouldn't have to go to the Florida Legislature to be the big brother here.

I spent a few years covering Tallahassee and I often heard legislators complaining about mandates coming down from Washington. But it seems like they're doing the same thing here to local governments that they complain that the federal government does the states.

That's a really interesting observation. The other thing that I sort of marvel at is, so many people that are elected to the state Legislature are actually people who have served at the local level as school board members, county commissioners, city council members. And when they get to Tallahassee, many of them just change their tune. Some of them don't. But it's really kind of like, what happens when you come up to the biggest hill in the state? Is there something in the air here?

I think it's power that's in the air?

I also think it's money. I think that there is a need to get re-elected, and they need campaign contributions. And these organizations have a lot of it.

Along those lines, these bills are seen as efforts to take local control away or to shift control from local officials to the state. But it seems like they're often taking local control away and giving it to private entities or corporations. Like you said, there's evidence that lobbyists from these industries are actually writing the bills that become law.

They will push back and say, "Well, just because an industry writes the bill, that's just the first draft. It's not going to be the one that's final." But I don't really see too many cities and counties that have their legislation handed over and turned into a first draft. There probably are examples, and they maybe aren't as exciting, so they don't get all our attention. But it does seem like it's an uneven advantage.

You mentioned that these bills — known as preemption bills, because they preempt local governments from making their own rules — that they go back to at least the 1980s. In your experience covering the Capitol for many years, would you say these bills are becoming more common?

Yes, I think in the last several years they've become a regular feature. And I think if you were to talk to the cities and counties, they're constantly on the defensive. The Florida Association of Counties has even set up something on its web page called "Preemption Tracker." And it's a growing list.

And the interesting thing is, it's not even complete. There are so many bills that don't directly apply as preemption, but they have the same effect as preempting local governments. One of them, for example, is this bill that is moving that has to do with anti-riot legislation, that would increase the penalties for people who assemble for a peaceful protest and things get out of control and violent.

Attached to that bill are some really heavy-handed provisions that limit local government for restricting police budgets. So they're using that bill to do what Republicans claim they don't want to happen. And that is the "defund the police" effort.

Right. In that particular situation, we're not talking about passing a law that says, "OK, you can't pass a bill on the local level or an ordinance on the local level on x-y-z issue." But it's saying, "We're going to dictate from Tallahassee how you can craft your budgets as a local government," which is the primary responsibility of most local governments.

Yeah. You can imagine that that has enormous opposition, as well.

Do these preemption bills typically succeed, or are they more meant to scare local elected officials or try to kind of control them, you know, preemptively?

I think it's both. The most important thing is when there's friction and there's resistance and opposition and it's bipartisan opposition, that's when things slow down. Last year, for example, the governor came out and put a halt to a preemption bill as it related to, you know, Airbnb and VRBO.

Vacation rentals.

Vacation rental properties, right. When the governor came out and indicated that he supported local governments having a say in these things, that quickly put an end to that progress of that bill last session. Now that bill's moving again. The governor has not spoken up about it. So sometimes these things just keep coming back.

I will say that there's no doubt in my mind that many will pass this year. So it continues to be an erosion of local control and local authority and and putting it into the hands of the state Legislature.

This interview is part of our series looking at how state leaders have wielded influence over Florida’s local elected officials – and voters. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks as the legislative session continues in Tallahassee."

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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