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Bill to undermine Key West cruise ship limit ‘is dead’

The bill began as a broad attempt to prohibit local governments from restricting maritime commerce at Florida’s 15 deep-water ports.
Carnival cruise line ship Carnival Magic.
Carnival cruise line ship Carnival Magic. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Apr. 28
Updated Apr. 28

TALLAHASSEE — After having second thoughts about the constitutionality of his bill to undermine three ordinances approved by Key West voters, the House sponsor of the measure said Tuesday he has concluded “the bill’s dead” for the session.

“I don’t see a path forward,’' said Rep. Spencer Roach, the North Fort Myers Republican who, along with Sen. Jim Boyd, attempted to pass a bill that would have used a state law to preempt three new ordinances adopted by more than 60 percent of voters in Key West in November. But, he added, “anything can happen between now and when the hankie drops.”

Florida legislators are scheduled to complete the 60-day session — with the traditional dropping of a handkerchief — on Friday and the bill to undermine the will of Key West voters was one of the most ambitious preemption attempts of the session.

The bill began as a broad attempt to prohibit local governments from restricting maritime commerce at Florida’s 15 deep-water ports. But with local governments fighting it and 92 lobbyists registered to work on it, Roach said he and Boyd “narrowed the bill and narrowed the bill and narrowed the bill.”

The final product, SB 426, “was narrowed in scope to the extent that we were not accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish,’' Roach said Tuesday.

SB 426 passed the Senate last week, but Roach said the turning point came Monday when “staff raised some questions” about the constitutionality of using a general law to achieve a local purpose, something state law prohibits.

Nearly $1 million in campaign cash to DeSantis

Also on Monday, the Times/Herald reported that Mark Walsh, the business developer who operates the Key West pier which gets most of the city’s cruise ship traffic, donated nearly $1 million to the political committee of Gov. Ron DeSantis through 11 of his companies days before the legislative session began.

The revelation of the campaign contributions drew criticism from referendum supporters.

“We always knew the special interests of a few wealthy people were leading our opposition, but a $1 million bid for the governor’s signature on legislation is beyond even our own imagination,’' said Arlo Haskell, a Key West resident who, along with local fishermen, helped organize the three referendums.

Roach said he has not spoken to DeSantis or his staff about the bill and the political contribution “certainly had no impact on my decision to run the bill” and he “had no knowledge of that at the time that I filed the bill.”

Haskell was relieved Tuesday when he learned that Roach appeared to have abandoned the effort this year and suggested that DeSantis may have played a role.

“Sometimes the good guys win,’' he said. “We never forgot the hardworking people in our community who put their faith in us and we never lost hope that Gov. DeSantis would stick up for the environment in the Florida Keys just like he’s always fought for the Everglades. We hope the bill will not come up again.”

Wait ‘til next year?

Roach said he will return next year with a new version and, in the meantime, he expects Walsh and others to continue their legal challenge, making the argument that the limit on cruise ship traffic violates the federal Commerce Clause.

He said he erred in making the bill too narrow, potentially violating the law that prevents a general bill from targeting a local community.

But Monday was not the first time he had been asked about it. At the April 19 meeting of the House Commerce Committee, Roach explained that he had limited the bill to the “areas of critical state concern” which excluded all deep-water seaports except Key West.

Rep. Emily Slosberg, a Boca Raton Democrat, asked why Roach didn’t file the proposal as a local bill, which would need the support of the Monroe County legislators, who opposed the bill.

Roach responded that the bill did have statewide impact because it would limit future ballot initiatives at all 15 seaports. However, the language that passed the Senate only applied to Key West. On Tuesday, Roach filed an amendment restoring the bill’s application to all seaports but, he said later, he realized he could not get the votes to pass it.

“Everyone wants to protect their own ports,’’ he said.

Roach has repeatedly argued that the proponents of the Key West refenda were attempting to “remake Key West in the mold of a Martha’s Vineyard” because “wealthy homeowners don’t want to see cruise ship traffic walking down their pier.”

That’s a point of view rejected by the Key West mayor and several business owners who testified before legislative committees. They said the goal of the referenda was not to eliminate cruise traffic but to protect the ecosystem, on which their livelihoods depend, from the largest cruise ships they believe are damaging the reef.

And local businesses were not the only ones challenging Roach’s claim that Key West was engaged in “economic elitism.”

Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples, said during the Commerce Committee meeting that there was a recent motorcycle event in Key West and he wondered if the city attempted to restrict that activity. Roach said he didn’t know, but cited the 1982 faux attempt by Key West to declare its independence from the U.S. as the Conch Republic.

“It has a history of doing do some crazy things,’' he said.

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