Friday, November 24, 2017
Politics

Does Tallahassee dictate too much to cities, counties?

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TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature can't seem to make up its mind about what kind of government is best — small and local, or big and centralized.

As state lawmakers rail against Washington's top-down governance, they are pushing several bills that strip power away from city and county governments.

"I understand that there are times when local (governance) is important," said Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and former school superintendent. "There are other times when the state has a legitimate right as the parent of local governments … to exercise our jurisdiction."

The deciding factor, in many cases, is what the business lobby wants. Most of the pre-emption efforts can be traced back to business interests, who spend millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions and wield considerable power in Tallahassee.

Ron Book, a lobbyist who represents several local governments and business interests, acknowledged that corporations have more clout in Tallahassee than cities and counties.

"They are laser focused, while these local governments are scattershot,'' he said.

Book said he often tells state lawmakers — many of whom were local officials before coming to Tallahassee — to "remember where you came from."

Dominated by conservatives, Florida's Legislature finds itself in an awkward position on the issue of local pre-emption. Lawmakers passionately endorse small government and federalism, while occasionally passing down strict mandates that locals see as heavy-handed.

Democrats protesting the local pre-emption bills use many of the same arguments Republicans use to deride Washington, including accusations of "big government."

"This does feel like another Tallahassee power grab," said Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, speaking about a bill banning local "wage theft" prevention programs. "We're taking away the ability of local governments to create policy that they think represents the values of local voters."

His comments mirrored those made by Gaetz as he discussed federal health care reform last week.

"You have a growing number of states that are asking the federal government for some kind of flexibility to fashion a solution that works in their state," said Gaetz, talking about Medicaid expansion. He blamed Washington for putting Florida in a "strait-jacket" with mandates and regulations that can't be tailored at the local level.

In addition to the "wage theft" bill, lawmakers are moving to ban city and county governments from creating local programs for paid sick time and "living wages." Bills that would prohibit local governments from passing laws regarding environmental regulations, growth management and land use have also been proposed.

Legislators say the bans are necessary to create a streamlined system of regulations that apply statewide.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, is backing a bill that would ban local ordinances mandating "sick time" benefits for employees.

"If you have an employer who has multiple locations, you can imagine if you have to deal with a quiltwork, a patchwork of various regulations in the local governments," he said. "It would be a disaster."

Yet, on other issues, Florida has embraced the so-called "patchwork" as a virtue of small government flexibility, even when it meant different rules for businesses.

The Legislature has given local governments authority to tax businesses and services at different rates, enact local sales tax increases, create "enterprise zones" with special regulations for business development and regulate development locally. Lawmakers have also embraced more local jurisdiction over "tourist development taxes" and "manufacturing development zones" this year.

In trying to fix the state's problem-rigged elections system, the Florida Senate passed a bill Wednesday giving local counties flexibility over how many hours of voting to offer in the weeks before Election Day.

Democrats, who have pushed for uniform early voting statewide, pounced on the inconsistency, using words like "patchwork" and "discretion." A minority in the Legislature, Democrats have also come down on both sides of the local control debate.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said he hears often that lawmakers are "inconsistent" on local control, but doesn't agree.

"Home rule is not a blank check to allow local governments to do whatever they want to do," he said. "It's a delicate balance."

Florida's "home rule" statutes have been on the books since the Constitution was revised in 1968, giving local governments power to self-govern on issues not preempted by the state. The state has used its pre-emption powers selectively over the years, taking on hot-button issues like gun regulation and tobacco laws in the 1980s.

As counties and cities have become more independent, businesses have sought pre-emption from Tallahassee lawmakers to protect their interests.

Bills this year affecting alimony, high-school athletics, property taxes, wetlands permitting, lawn fertilizers and condo foreclosures all seek to usurp power from local decision-makers in favor of the state. Lawmakers backing the bills point to scenarios where local officials and judges have abused their powers and need to be reined in.

Here are a few of the pre-emption bills pending in the Florida Legislature:

Wage Theft: For the past three years, the business lobby has pushed for a bill outlawing the "wage theft" ordinance that Miami-Dade County enacted in 2010. That ordinance created a local administrative program to help workers recover unpaid wages from their employers. Proponents say it will create a unified standard across the state to deal with the problem of wage theft. But critics argue that programs like the one in Miami-Dade — which has saved workers more than $600,000 — show that counties can, and should, solve their own problems.

Living wage, sick-time laws: Backed by the business lobby, lawmakers are moving bills this year to outlaw local governments from creating ordinances related to "earned sick time" and "living wages." The ordinances, which are on the books or being considered in South Florida and Orange County, require businesses to offer wages or benefits that are higher than the minimum wage. Worker activists have accused Tallahassee lawmakers of trouncing on the rights of local voters, who gathered 50,000 signatures for a sick-time ballot initiative.

Growth management, environmental regulations: In 2011, the Legislature passed a sweeping growth management bill that gave local governments more authority to regulate development. The bill gained support of the Florida Association of Counties and the League of Cities, groups that endorse local control. This year, the Legislature is rolling back many of those reforms, with pre-emption bills that bar local governments from imposing "impact fees" and "mobility fees" on developers. Lawmakers say the fees harm job creation, but city and county advocates are unhappy by the about-face.

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Toluse Olorunnipa can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @ToluseO.

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