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TBT Editorial: The Florida Legislature’s assault on cities and counties

The Legislature begins its annual session on Tuesday, and the Republicans are completely in control. But that doesn’t mean GOP leaders have agreed on priorities or agendas. To help you sort through the key issues, we bring you “For A Better Florida,” the Tampa Bay Times preview of the session. Published every year since 1951, it presents news articles and opinions intended to stimulate debate over some of the most important issues facing our state.
[STEVE MADDEN | Tampa Bay Times]
[STEVE MADDEN | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Jan. 4, 2018

From the Tampa Bay Times editorial board:

The Florida Legislature's message is clear: Tallahassee knows best, and cities and counties should sit down and shut up.

Like bullies on the block, lawmakers are more determined than ever to control what happens in the neighborhood rather than leave those decisions to local county commissioners, mayors and city council members. They want to decide whether red light cameras are banned, write the rules for cutting down trees and dictate how county jails deal with undocumented immigrants. They want to oversee short-term rentals in every corner of the state, restrict tools for reviving poor neighborhoods and determine where professional sports stadiums can be built and how they can be funded. They even want to make it as hard as possible for local officials to borrow money or rely on local property taxes to pay for local priorities.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran leads the assault. He implores local governments to stay in their lane when it's the Legislature hogging the road. He implausibly claims state legislators, with their fat campaign accounts and strong ties to special-interest lobbyists, are closer to the people than city council members or county commissioners. The Land O'Lakes Republican, who once tried to force an elected county mayor system of government down Pasco County's throat, sees the Legislature as all powerful.

That may have been true in the dark ages, when Florida was just another southern backwater and Disney World didn't exist, moon launches from Cape Canaveral were fantasy and the Legislature was controlled by a handful of powerful white men from rural counties. But in 1968, voters approved a revised Florida Constitution that provides for home rule. Instead of local governments being required to seek permission from the  Legislature to do practically anything, local governments are granted broad authority to act on virtually any issue unless it is specifically prohibited by state law.

A half-century later, Corcoran and his cronies are turning back the clock and chipping away at that constitutional authority granted by the voters and spelled out in state law. Perhaps the most audacious example is legislation that would pre-empt local governments from approving any regulations affecting business.

Imagine that.

No city or county could have approve any local ordinance, fee or permit affecting any business unless the state allowed it first. The legislation didn't get far last year, but it could resurface this year.

Until then, Republican lawmakers are focused on taking smaller bites out of local government. The Tampa City Council discovered last year that a new state law leaves cities and counties virtually powerless to regulate where new wireless 5G antennas can go. This year, bills are filed again that would ban professional teams from renovating or building stadiums on public land. Others would repeal a state program that enables sales taxes generated at stadiums to help pay for their renovation or construction. Good luck building a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays if those bills become law.

It's not just sports stadiums that are under attack. Corcoran is leading a push to phase out existing Community Redevelopment Agencies, which local governments throughout Tampa Bay and elsewhere create to revitalize neighborhoods. Any new CRAs would have to be approved by the Legislature. The money generated from rising property values in these redevelopment areas is kept in those areas to pay for public improvements. There have been isolated abuses, but that's no reason to take away one of local government's most effective tools for helping blighted neighborhoods and rejuvenating downtowns.

The fight over local control will continue throughout the year. The Florida Association of Counties and The Florida League of Cities have made defending home rule their top priority as state lawmakers are trying to micromanage local governments on multiple fronts — or starve them to death so they cannot afford to do much on their own. A constitutional amendment that lawmakers have put on the November ballot would create an additional $25,000 homestead exemption, which would cost cities and counties hundreds of millions in revenue every year.

St. Petersburg is not St. Augustine. Tampa is not Tallahassee, and Clearwater is not Clewiston. Local issues should be decided by locally elected leaders who are closest to their neighbors, not the arrogant, all-knowing, all-powerful Florida Legislature.