Thursday, May 16, 2024

Florida Legislature vs. Home Rule—An Ongoing Battle

The Florida Legislature is slightly more than halfway through its 60-day session, and all manner of bills related to local governments have passed or remain in play.

For the last several years, Tallahassee has increasingly sought to impose a top-down style of governance. The quaint concept known as home rule—cities and counties should decide for themselves whenever possible—is under siege.

Here’s a look at some of the most potentially significant legislation and what it could mean for residents of Boca Raton, Delray Beach and Palm Beach County.

Prioritizing affordable housing

for rent
Photo by David Gales – stock.adobe.com

Unlike so many high-profile bills, Tallahassee seeks to address an actual problem with its legislation on affordable housing. There is bipartisan agreement that housing in Florida costs too much, especially rental apartments. By one estimate, Florida is almost 500,000 units short on housing units within the price range of middle-class workers.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, made this issue a priority. The result was Senate Bill 102, known as Live Local. Gov. DeSantis already signed it.

The law sets aside $711 million next year for affordable housing, awarded to counties and cities based on population. Little of the money is new. For the first time in more than a decade, though, the Legislature will not poach from the Sadowski Housing Trust Fund. That revenue comes from a tax on real estate transactions and is named for a former secretary of the Department of Community Affairs.

Bill Sadowski’s idea was to create a pool for lower-income Floridians seeking to buy homes. In the fund’s early years, much of the money helped people make down payments.

But legislators increasingly raided the fund—“sweeping” is the technical term—to finance other projects. Those raids are one reason for the shortage of affordable housing. Another is that builders in Palm Beach County and elsewhere successfully lobbied to get around requirements that they devote a portion of their market-rate projects to less lucrative affordable housing.

Passidomo and other supporters tout that new money and other incentives for multi-family developers. Critics respond that the Legislature could cut that money any year. In addition, the definition of “affordable” to qualify for those incentives is loose.

Projects thus could receive money even if they are far from where the workers in question live. Conservation groups worry that the law could lead to development of environmentally sensitive sites. The law makes it harder for cities and counties to reject projects in such locations. Some qualifying projects might not need approval from elected officials.

Finally, the law forbids cities and counties from establishing any form of rent control. This would seem to include even Delray Beach’s modest requirement that landlords give tenants 60 days’ notice before ending a lease or raising rents by more than five percent.

But the Senate passed the legislation unanimously and drew only six dissenting votes in the House. Cities must figure out how to ensure that this top-down approach benefits the people who need cheaper housing or developers.

Limits on local business regulations

Having failed last year, Tallahassee is trying again to hobble cities and counties from regulating businesses.

The Senate has passed its version of the 2023 attempt to gut local ordinances like the one Delray Beach passed to ban single-use plastic straws in restaurants. With few exceptions, local governments would have to compile a “business impact estimate” before passing any ordinance. That estimate would have to include the cost of complying with it.

Senate Bill 170 also would make it easier for businesses to challenge regulations. Regulations now must be “reasonable.” The staff analysis cites a court ruling that Palm Beach wrongly banned surfing on beaches within the town.

This is another example of the Legislature seeking to preempt local control. DeSantis vetoed a similar bill last year. The Senate has passed its version. Democrats Tina Polsky and Lori Berman, who represent Boca Raton and Delray Beach, voted no. The House version is up for second reading, meaning that it needs two more votes to pass.

Bill to make local elections partisan stalls

There is less progress on a bill that would ask voters to decide next year if local elections should become partisan.

Currently, candidates for mayor, city council and city commission races in Boca Raton and Delray Beach and elsewhere don’t come with party affiliations. Few issues touch on state and national politics. Candidates like it that way.

Republicans in Tallahassee want to change that. But House Bill 31, which would put the issue on the November 2024 ballot as a constitutional amendment, is not moving. There is no Senate version. At this point, the issue seems dead.

Bill to make school board races partisan moves forward

The opposite is happening with legislation to make school board races partisan.

The House passed its version, mostly along party lines. Rep. Peggy Gossett-Seidman, R-Highland Beach, who represents Boca Raton, voted for it. Joe Cassello, a Democrat who represents Delray Beach, voted against it.

Meanwhile, the Senate version has passed two committees, also along party lines. If the Senate passed it and Gov. DeSantis signed it, the proposal would go before voters as a proposed constitutional amendment next year. If it got at least 60 percent, school board candidates starting in 2026 would have to run under a party label.

Education bill to divert funds to charter schools

If the Legislature is never done dictating to local governments, it’s also never done dictating to public schools—usually not in a helpful way.

This year, Senate Bill 1328 would require large districts, including Palm Beach County, to share more revenue from voter-approved tax increases with charter schools. Over five years, that amount would increase 20 percent. When charter schools began in Florida a quarter-century ago, operators said they never would need public money.

SB 1328 has passed one committee. Berman voted against it. The House version has been through one committee. According to the staff analysis, the bill would have a “significant negative fiscal impact” on school districts.

Remembering Ben Ferencz

Benjamin Ferencz; photo credit: Adam Jones, Ph.D., CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Common

South Florida has lost a citizen of the world.

Ben Ferencz, the last remaining prosecutor at the trials of Nazi war criminals, died Friday at 103. He had lived at Kings Post west of Delray Beach, but he was known far beyond the large retirement community.

In January, Ferencz received the Congressional Gold Medal. U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, sponsored the House version of the legislation. It reads that the medal went to Ferencz “in recognition of his service to the United States and the international community during the post-World War II Nuremberg trials and his lifelong advocacy for international criminal justice and the rule of law.”

Previous winners include Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor. Many scholars consider Wiesel’s memoir, “Night,” the most powerful literary work of the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

Despite all that he had witnessed while investigating the death camps, Ferencz focused on what he saw as progress in terms of tolerance. “The world is changing,” he told this magazine, in a good way. A law professor at St. John’s University called Ferencz “the lawyer for humanity.”

Boca’s resolution to denounce racism and discrimination

Coincidentally, before the Boca Raton City Council at tonight’s meeting is a resolution stating that the city “denounces and condemns all forms of racism, discrimination, bias-motivated hateful speech, harassment, intimidation and violent actions of all kinds.”

The resolution specifically refers to anti-Semitism, citing the Anti-Defamation League’s recent report that more such incidents occurred in 2022 than in any year since the group began tracking them in 1979. Citing the January incident in which a swastika was projected onto a building in West Palm Beach, the county commission last month made it illegal to show an image on a building without the owner’s consent.

Mayor Scott Singer sponsored the resolution.

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Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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