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Don’t give Florida businesses a green light to prey on local governments | Editorial
Why would Legislature punish taxpayers by encouraging drive-by lawsuits?
Florida's Capitol complex in Tallahassee. The annual 60 day legislative session in currently in progress.
Florida's Capitol complex in Tallahassee. The annual 60 day legislative session in currently in progress. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jan. 27|Updated Jan. 27

Who knew that Republicans were the party of trial lawyers, bad behavior and runaway government spending? After all, a Republican bill racing through the Florida Senate manages to promote all three. The measure would put taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars in damages by making it easier for businesses to sue local governments. The bill is sloppy, wrongheaded and overkill, and were it to pass, it would be a terrible legacy for its powerful backer, outgoing Senate President Wilton Simpson.

Senate Bill 620 would allow businesses from pill mills to puppy mills to sue local governments if they lose 15 percent or more of their profits because of a local ordinance attempting to regulate them. Despite warnings from city and county officials across the state that the bill would encourage an avalanche of frivolous lawsuits, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed the bill this month along mostly partisan lines, with only Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg breaking Republican ranks to vote against the measure.

Call it the Trial Lawyer Full Employment Act. Under the measure, a business in operation for at least three years could file for damages if a city or county enacted or amended a regulation that caused at least a 15 percent reduction in a company’s profit. The amount of damages could reach up to seven years of lost profit, plus attorneys fees and other expenses. Sponsors said the intent is to make local governments think twice before imposing restrictions on business. But the bill is so ill conceived, poorly written and overly punitive to taxpayers it would create chaos for the courts and local communities alike.

Could a city be forced to pay for cracking down on nuisance bars or massage parlors? Unclear. Get a lawyer.

Could a seaside hotel claim damages if a county tourist board marketed sports instead of the beaches? Unclear. Get a lawyer.

Could landscapers sue over watering restrictions, or taxi companies over expanded mass transit, or DJ’s over noise limits? Unclear. Get a lawyer.

The real-life examples go on and on.

The bill excludes some causes of action, but the language is so general that countless businesses could still gamble on the courts. And why not? The bill provides that business damages may be established “by any reasonable method.” That’s a cattle call for accountants and expert witnesses. What’s more, local governments that lose would be on the hook for a business’s attorneys fees and other costs. But that principle doesn’t cut both ways; governments that prevail would still have to cover their own expenses. The whole arrangement is like being forced to pay an arsonist to burn your own house.

The I-win, you-lose scheme will encourage failing and predatory businesses to throw a Hail Mary in court. And like all forms of intimidation, the proposed law would have a chilling effect, discouraging cities and counties — especially those in smaller, poorer and rural areas — from taking proactive steps to protect their communities, whether from pain clinics, party houses or no-tell motels.

Is this really what Simpson, a self-made and highly successful Trilby egg farmer, wants to leave as a parting shot as he campaigns this year for state agriculture commissioner? Aside from turning local taxpayers into cash machines, the measure is also anti-competitive. It creates a financial incentive for entrenched businesses to bully local government into maintaining the status quo. That’s not good for competition or innovation, and it’s not how the American marketplace is supposed to work.

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The Senate doesn’t need to go to this extreme, and the House should not follow suit. Lawmakers already have a separate bill that sends the same message while reasonably balancing business and community interests. Senate Bill 280 requires local governments to estimate the economic impact of new ordinances on businesses, and it provides a fast track for resolving legal challenges in court. This is a more thoughtful approach for getting government and business toward the same page, while protecting community standards to boot.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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