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The Florida Legislature takes a sledgehammer to local government authority | Column
It’s OK to promote a healthy business climate. It’s not OK to target local governments — and the people of Florida — to do it
People walk past the Florida State Capitol Building, with the Historic Capitol building in the background during a legislative session, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, in Tallahassee. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
People walk past the Florida State Capitol Building, with the Historic Capitol building in the background during a legislative session, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, in Tallahassee. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack) [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
Published Jan. 14

After years of steadily taking a chisel to the authority of local leaders in Florida to make local decisions, state legislators are now considering a set of four bills that would deliver a sledgehammer blow to the ability of local governments to uphold community values in their laws — the constitutional principle of home rule.

Paul Owens
Paul Owens [ Provided ]

What are some of the local actions that might be threatened? Changes in land-use codes. Earlier closing times for bars. Bans on puppy mills. The creation of public broadband service. Measures to enhance local resilience to floods, storms and other climate-change impacts. Better protections for local waterways and wildlife. Affordable housing initiatives. Programs to support minority-owned businesses. Increases in taxes or fees to cover rising costs. Non-discrimination policies. The possibilities are almost unlimited.

Together, these bills would permanently weaken the ability of local leaders to carry out the will of their constituents. Local leaders would risk unlimited lawsuits and liability for their taxpayers for doing the jobs they were elected to do: protecting public health and safety, the environment and the quality of life for their constituents.

SB 280/HB 403 would require counties and cities to prepare extensive and onerous “business impact statements” for proposed ordinances, with only a few exceptions. This would be a new unfunded mandate on local governments, and maybe a full-employment act for economists and lawyers. It would be especially burdensome on smaller governments with limited staff and resources. A single business also could veto the action of a local government and unilaterally suspend a local ordinance if the business files a lawsuit contending the measure is “arbitrary or unreasonable” and does not meet the bill’s requirements.

SB 620/HB 569 would allow businesses to file lawsuits seeking damages from counties or cities for enacting or amending ordinances that those businesses allege have caused a 15 percent reduction in their profits. This would be highly speculative, because many things can reduce business profits, including the emergence of new competitors, changing customer preferences, or a drop in tourist traffic, to name just a few.

Each of these bills would allow businesses that file lawsuits to recover their attorneys’ fees if they prevail, but would not require them to reimburse local government attorney fees if they lose. This one-way provision would result in taxpayers footing the bill no matter the result.

Many local governments, faced with the unfunded mandate of preparing a business impact statement and the risk of inviting a lawsuit in a process tilted against them, might simply decide not to act. Or to avoid liability, they might skew their policy making in favor of business interests at the expense of any other interests.

It’s OK to promote a healthy business climate in Florida. It’s not OK to target local governments — and the people of Florida — to do it.

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Paul Owens is president of 1000 Friends of Florida, a statewide nonprofit founded in 1986 to promote environmentally and fiscally responsible development.