TALLAHASSEE — A day after citizens of Key West thought the legislation aimed at overturning their vote to limit cruise ship traffic appeared dead, Republican legislative leaders quickly reversed course and powered it past Democrats to send it to the governor.
Sen. Jim Boyd, the Bradenton Republican who sponsored the original bill that stalled earlier this week in the House, attached an amendment to an unrelated Senate transportation bill declaring that “any local ballot initiative or referendum may not restrict maritime commerce” at any one of Florida’s 15 deep-water ports.
The provision is retroactive, applying the ban to three referendums approved by 60% of Key West voters in November.
The bill was one of the most ambitious assaults on home rule this session and has commanded a remarkable amount of attention for a city that has a population of less than 25,000, an economy that has been booming, and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state.
House Democrats suggested the super-charged interest of the Legislature’s Republicans is related to the amount of money the port generates for some powerful interests.
They spent spent 30 minutes late Wednesday, trying but failing to amend the bill, suggesting that it was intended to benefit a wealthy business owner who gave $995,000 to the political committee of Gov. Ron DeSantis, using 11 different companies to shield the contributions.
“It’s totally a conflict of interest, and this is absolutely the swamp, that we are up to our necks in,’' said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando. “The fact that someone can make a $1 million contribution to the governor to ensure that he will sign this bill into law is a disgrace.”
Their efforts failed. The House voted 75-40 for the amended bill, following the 21-17 vote in the Senate, mostly along party lines.
The campaign contributions
Boyd’s district is home to hotel properties owned by Mark Walsh, the billionaire hotel operator and owner of the Key West pier, which gets most of the city’s cruise ship traffic. In the week before the legislative session began, Walsh gave $995,000 to the political committee of DeSantis.
Walsh has been fighting the referendum since last summer, when he filed a lawsuit to remove it from the ballot. According to a lease agreement with the state, Walsh’s company, Pier B Development, pays $24,572 a year to lease the pier. In an agreement with the city, the company keeps three-fourths of each $10 fee the cruise industry pays for each passenger who disembarks, and the city receives the rest — estimated at more than $4 million a year in profits.
Only one Republican stood up against the proposal, Rep. Jim Mooney, an Islamorada freshman, who countered all the arguments of the proponents and echoed the comments of the fisherman and residents who helped organize the initiative.
“I will tell you in undeniable terms that the city of Key West, the city of Marathon, the city of Key Colony Beach, the city of Islamorada, Monroe County, the National Marine Sanctuary and all the other scientific communities within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary boundaries are opposed to this bill,’' he said.
He said that “water quality is our lifeline there,” and when the cruise ships arrive they stir up the water, hurting fishing and damaging the reefs. “When the National Marine Sanctuary says that it’s hurting our reefs, you really have to listen to that.”
But Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, the House sponsor of the original bill, defended the amendment and repeated his claim that the referendum was backed by “a cabal of wealthy landowners in Key West that don’t want what they consider cruise ship riff-raff walking down their pier.”
That’s a point of view rejected by the Key West mayor, fishermen and several business owners who testified before legislative committees. They said the goal of the initiative was not to eliminate cruise traffic but to limit it so they can protect the coral reefs from the largest cruise ships they believe are damaging the reef.
As a result of the November vote, the city will ban cruise ships with more than 1,300 passengers from docking at the city port as soon as cruise ship travel resumes and the federal no-sail order is lifted. The city will also limit the total number of cruise visitors who can disembark each day to 1,500, and give priority to cruise ships that have the best environmental and health records.
But if the amended bill is signed by the governor, those limits will never take effect.
The amendment was added to SB 1194 whose sponsor, Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, voted against Boyd’s original bill.
“This is a compromise language amendment that has been worked out between both chambers,’' Hooper told senators in defending the amendment.
What locals fear
Arlo Haskell, a Key West resident who along with local fishermen helped organize the initiative drive, was disappointed in the turn of events.
“This is a thinly veiled attempt to overturn three voter referendums in Key West with legislation to help one mega donor who just contributed $1 million before session,’' he said. “It’s a shame that the future of the world’s third largest barrier reef is at risk to help one man with a vendetta get richer.”
The Florida Ports Council, which represents all ports affected by the amendment, said it was neutral on the amendment.
“Our ports go through a significant master planning process where we have a lot of local input,’' said Michael Rubin, vice president of the Ports Council. “Most of them want to have citizens comfortable with what they do. They spend a lot of time putting together master plans with citizen input. Nobody is very comfortable with overturning a vote by citizens, but the opportunity for input is there in the master planning process.”
Haskell, however, said that the reason Key West citizens organized the referendum is because the city’s ports master plan is outdated, having not been amended in nearly six years.
“The reason we needed a referendum here was because of the city’s long intransigence and refusal to address public concerns about cruise ships,’' he said.
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