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Tallahassee knows best. So lawmakers think. | Editorial

The Republican assault on citizens and local control continues.
No issue is too small for Florida lawmakers in Tallahassee to attack citizen initiatives and local control.
No issue is too small for Florida lawmakers in Tallahassee to attack citizen initiatives and local control.

A Hillsborough judge’s ruling this month that struck down a hotel marketing fee in Tampa was hailed by former Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran as “a victory for taxpayers.” It was in reality another victory for meddlesome Republican leaders like Corcoran who think Tallahassee has all the answers and who have all but abandoned the longstanding principle that the government closest to the people serves them the best.

Corcoran filed the lawsuit against the fee while he was House speaker, so his self-serving assessment of the outcome was no surprise. But it shows the lengths to which state Republicans are going to attack local control -- even, as in this case, when a community decides to take responsibility to promote a common interest.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas struck down a 2017 city ordinance that created a tourism marketing district, financed by a $1.50 per-room nightly charge on downtown Tampa and Ybor City hotels. Corcoran called the fee an illegal tax, even though about a dozen hotels banded together to raise the money for marketing purposes. The city adopted the ordinance as a pass-through mechanism to collect and disburse the money. But this idea was driven entirely by the hotels themselves, which stood to benefit from a boost in area tourism.

As the Tampa Bay Times’ Charlie Frago reported, the court ruling was only the latest development in the state’s preemption of local ordinances and initiatives. Whether it’s gutting local tree protection ordinances from the Panhandle to Key West, or intervening to kill a voter-approved transportation tax in Hillsborough County, the Republican-led Legislature cannot resist any effort to attack local control. State lawmakers have intervened to stop the local regulation of everything from gun shows to the placement of wireless networks on public property.

The Legislature’s repeated efforts to preempt local government authority works hand-in-hand with its outright contempt for citizen-led referendums. Gov. Ron DeSantis approved legislation last year that cracked down on citizen petitions, making it easier to quash future ballot initiatives disliked by Republican lawmakers and corporate donors. The measure makes it harder to collect enough signatures to get a referendum on the ballot, and it helps solidify Republican control in Tallahassee by neutering the voters’ ability to flex power at the ballot box.

The Legislature has become so accustomed to riding roughshod over local government that lawmakers have become immune to the wishes of the very people they represent and to their lawful rights to petition for a change of course. And voters who take it upon themselves to address critical concerns in their local communities are becoming targets of legislative leaders who have no appreciation of the diversity of Florida.

Activists and political leaders in Hillsborough are working on a backup plan should the Florida Supreme Court invalidate the county’s transportation tax. Tampa’s hotel industry should also look for another means of using the industry’s own money for promotional marketing. If the Legislature won’t stop interfering in truly local matters, then communities must push back with the same focused and sustained effort.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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