TALLAHASSEE — A last-minute tax package amendment could take away local government's ability to ban the sale of puppy mill dogs, while also voiding existing ordinances in communities such as St. Petersburg and Hillsborough County.
The $350 million tax package doesn't even include the words "pet store," but animal activists say no other industry would be so affected by House Bill 7087's vague language.
It bars local governments from prohibiting the sale of taxable personal property that may lawfully be sold in the state.
Florida has 58 county or city ordinances that ban pet stores from selling bred puppies and kittens, which are often born in high volume and in poor conditions to meet stores' demands.
"I think the wording is broad as to not tip off any particular rights group," said Lindsay Larris, an attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund. "I think it's also suspect this comes about in a tax bill, buried in an amendment that's one paragraph of a 108-page document."
The measure could also affect ordinances that control adult video and alcohol sales.
The bill passed in the Appropriations Committee 18-7 late on Thursday. Many outside the committee didn't realize its ramifications until Monday morning.
"Everyone is confused," said Larris, whose animal rights group has a lawsuit pending against chain store Petland.
Michele Lazarow, vice mayor of Hallandale Beach, one of the first municipalities to ban puppy mill sales, called the amendment "sneaky."
Hillsborough County passed its ordinance in 2017, banning any new pet stores from selling bred puppies but allowing existing stores to continue to sell from USDA-approved breeders. Since 2016, St. Petersburg has only allowed pet stores to sell dogs from rescue organizations.
Meanwhile, 20 minutes away in Largo, a Petland location is able to sell dogs from breeders. Several residents who purchased their dogs from that Petland have told the Tampa Bay Times they were given sick puppies.
That's the basis for the Animal Legal Defense Fund's ongoing lawsuit against Petland, which is the only retail chain that sells bred puppies. It has 11 locations in Florida.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control said 87 percent of 113 people who fell ill with the antibiotic-resistant bacteria Campylobacter had contact with a Petland puppy or someone who had. Twenty-one of those cases were in Florida.
Petland has said it is working with the CDC and ensures puppies are sourced from safe and certified breeders who have no recent infractions on their records.
But just Friday, dozens of puppies headed to a Petland in Fort Myers were seized by Lee County because they were kept in squalor with false health certificates, investigators said.
"I championed the ordinance so puppy mills could be eradicated," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan. "I'm hopeful the language can be amended to allow local governments to protect their residents."
Florida Retail Federation lobbyist Melissa Ramba said on Thursday that local ordinances can harm small business owners.
She argued to the committee last week retailers should be allowed to sell anything that is legal. Bans, she said, just push shoppers to buying things online — like puppies.
Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, sponsored the bill and told the committee he supported the preemption language.
"If you have a situation where some cities have banned the sales of those types of puppies and others have not, you have not solved the problem," he said.
But Lazarow, who also runs an animal rights nonprofit, said if the state isn't happy with the patchwork of ordinances, legislators shouldn't take it way before having a solution.
"Give us the ban," she said. "Don't go in the opposite direction."
She's also worried it strips power away from local governments when they may need it — like when counties were able to ban the sale of bath salts before the state Legislature went into session.
"You're taking away the will of the people on the local level," she said.
Contact Sara DiNatale at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @sara_dinatale.