Tallahassee vs. Home Rule Rises Again

senate
Old and new capitol buildings in Tallahassee, Florida. (State Archives of Florida)

The Legislature’s 2020 session begins next Tuesday, and so will Tallahassee’s annual battle with Florida’s cities and counties.

As they did in the last two sessions, Republicans have introduced a slew of bills that would preempt local government from regulations of industries or products. Local officials of both parties oppose these restrictions and have hired lobbyists to defeat them.

On Monday, the group Integrity Florida released a report called “Preemption Strategy: The Attack on Home Rule in Florida.” The authors note that the Legislature considered 45 bills in 2019 to restrict home rule. This year, there already are 16.

The most sweeping preemption came in 1987, when the Legislature preempted local regulation of firearms. That was the first big favor Tallahassee did for the National Rifle Association. Many others have followed.

Democrats controlled the Legislature when the firearms bill passed. More recently, though, the attack on home rule has come from Republicans. They have controlled state government since 1999, and they have acted mostly on behalf of well-financed business groups.

But there’s also a partisan, ideological slant to this campaign. Last year, the Legislature banned “sanctuary cities,” which refuse to cooperate with the federal government on immigration enforcement. Florida had no such cities.

GOP legislators also claim that they must prevent “rogue” cities and counties from harming the American way of life. The Integrity Florida report quotes State Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, who in 2022 will become House Speaker.

Some cities and counties, Renner said, are “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.’ “

Renner cited the nationwide trend toward Democrats living in large cities and Republicans favoring suburban or rural areas. That shift means “more battles between states as a whole that tend to be more as a whole, center-right, and cities, again as a whole, more big cities…tend to be more to the left. 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.”

Yet the push to ban products that harm the environment has been non-partisan. The town council in Republican-heavy Palm Beach last year banned plastic bags. The council rescinded the ban after the Florida Retail Federation informed the town that the ban violated Tallahassee’s preemption on such bans.

Delray Beach banned single-use plastic straws last year even as the Legislature debated a bill to preempt such regulations for five years. It passed, but Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed it. Other targets have been local rules regulating vacation rentals, fertilizers and smoking.

The most sweeping bill came in 2019. It would have eliminated local control over business licensing. It passed the House 88-24 but died in the Senate. A similar ball is back for this session.

The Boca Raton City Council and the Delray Beach City Commission regularly have passed resolutions opposing state takeover of local powers. They have hired lobbyists to express that view.

Business groups, though, have donated hundreds of millions of dollars in this election cycle. I’ll have updates on this issue during the 60-day session.

Tallahassee and the NRA gets personal

Prohibiting cities and counties from regulating businesses is one thing. Penalizing local officials who vote for such regulations is a dangerous precedent.

The Legislature did that, however, in 2011. Again, Tallahassee acted to please the National Rifle Association. The law allows fines of up to $5,000 and possible removal from office for any official who supports a firearms-related ordinance. That provision applies to no other type of regulation that the courts might find to be illegal.

After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, the city of Weston in Broward County challenged that law. Boca Raton became one of about 30 cities to join the lawsuit.

Last July, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Charles Dodson upheld the state preemption on regulation but struck down the penalties on local officials. The NRA has appealed. DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody are backing the NRA against gun-control groups and the Florida League of Cities.

Even with the state ban, some local governments have tried to restrict the use of firearms in a state that has seen the nation’s second-deadliest mass shooting (Pulse nightclub) and second-deadliest school shooting (Stoneman Douglas.) The NRA has opposed every one.

The plaintiffs’ brief says the penalty provisions “will deter local legislators from experimenting with any solutions directed to the problem of gun violence, depriving Floridians of ordinances promoting their safety and security.” Correct.

There is no date for oral arguments before the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. More than half of the court’s 15 judges are appointees of DeSantis or Rick Scott, who signed those penalties into law.

And the developers’ bonus

One of the Legislature’s most citizen-unfriendly recent actions was the law that allows developers to collect attorney fees from individuals or groups that challenge development approvals.

Two Palm Beach County legislators have filed bills that would delete that entitlement. Both are Democrats. Neither bill is scheduled for a committee hearing. Don’t expect either bill to go anywhere.

Boca vs. Hidden Valley project

Speaking of lawsuits, Boca Raton seems to have prevailed in litigation that challenged the city’s denial of a project on the former Hidden Valley golf course.

In early 2018, a developer asked for a land-use change and rezoning that would have allowed houses on the 55-acre site in the north end. The course closed in 2005 and the developer claimed that golf was “no longer suitable.”

Neighbors objected, citing potential traffic problems. The developer responded that because the surrounding area is all single-family homes, the change would be compatible. But the planning and zoning board recommended denial and the city council agreed. Five months later, the developer sued.

Last June, Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Gillen granted Boca Raton’s motion for summary judgment, meaning that the city won on the facts—without having to put on a case. Gillen denied the developer’s motion for a rehearing.

Court records show that the developer filed an appeal. Last week, however, the developer’s attorney entered a voluntary dismissal. State records no longer list the corporate entity of the developer.

Match Point settles

tennis
Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash

Also speaking of lawsuits, I had reported that the Delray Beach City Commission approved a settlement with the promoter of the city’s pro tennis event. At that time, however, the owner of Match Point had not accepted the city’s offer.

According to a city spokeswoman, though, that happened in December. The contract with Match Point runs for another 10 years.