Editorial: Fla. lawmakers wrestle away local control

·4 min read
Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel

A few months ago, Orange County, Florida, commissioners wrestled with a tough decision: Whether to ban the retail sale of cats, dogs and rabbits as pets. Commissioners heard hours of testimony that included photos of sick and dying animals — including some that sold for thousands of dollars — and data demonstrating that local stores were in fact selling animals from breeders documented to have multiple violations of federal and state animal-welfare rules. Mayor Jerry Demings said he received 1,000 emails urging the ban of pet sales.

Commissioners listened, and then they voted to shut down retail pet sales by June 2022. Because retail pet sales are also banned in Lake, Osceola and Seminole counties, it makes it far more likely that would-be pet owners will seek out one of the thousands of animals available for adoption at local shelters and animal rescues.

It was the right decision for this community, made thoughtfully and with great care.

And now some members of the state Legislature want to wipe it all away. This session, lawmakers will be considering legislation (HB 869/SB 994) that would undo animal-sale bans in Orange and Manatee counties, both of which passed their ordinances after the June 2021 cutoff specified in the bill. The legislation would replace Orange County’s strong local language with a weak, loophole-ridden licensing plan that the Florida affiliate of the American Humane Society says could keep the conduits open between irresponsible breeders and unsuspecting purchasers of puppies and kittens.

Why does the Legislature want to knock down local rules that protect Orange County residents from heartbreak and expense? If the real goal was to restrict the flow of animals from puppy and kitten mills into Florida, why not pass the licensing plan but let communities enact more comprehensive restrictions?

The answer seems pretty clear: The point of this legislation is not protection. It’s pre-emption — the stripping away of local control. It’s just one of several bills aimed at undermining the ability of cities and counties to respond to their residents’ top priorities and craft regulations that match each community’s priorities.

This gradual erosion of local control has been a sorry hallmark of recent sessions, and lawmakers have pretty much abandoned any pretense that they are working to defend democracy or the principles of good government. Instead, it’s all too often about the money: Wealthy interests chafing at the thought that local governments would throw up roadblocks to profitability.

That’s clearly the impetus behind one of the worst pre-emption bills, a staggeringly broad proposition that would allow businesses to sue cities and counties for any local ordinance or charter provision that causes a 15 percent drop in the business’s profits or revenues. The legislation, which has already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and was approved by the House Committee on Civil Justice and Property Rights Committee Thursday, is impossibly vague in many of its key provisions — including the formula to determine a 15-percent loss — and could potentially paralyze local governments and handcuff voters.

It was notable that, during Thursday’s meeting, House sponsor Rep. Lawrence McClure couldn’t answer many critical questions about how his legislation would work if it passed. Would it let a strip club sue a city that banned adult entertainment in its key tourist districts, or burden a county attempting to protect sensitive water bodies by restricting pollution? These are questions lawmakers should ask.

Lawmakers are pursuing a dozen other pre-emption bills, including several that would eradicate any shred of local control over the spread of COVID-19 and the seemingly evergreen attempt to kneecap governments from restricting vacation rentals. We’ll be tracking those bills as they move forward, but we’ll be straightforward: We don’t see a single one that merits passage, and it’s alarming how bold lawmakers are becoming in quashing the ability of communities — through their elected officials, and directly at the ballot box — to shape policy that meets local priorities.

During his opening day remarks, Senate President Wilton Simpson said his chamber would keep a “sharp eye” out for restrictions on local control. We hope he keeps his promise, and that the Senate acts as a stopper to the pre-emption parade. If lawmakers want to set local policies, they can quit the Legislature and run for city council or county commission. Otherwise, they should give local governments the ability to respond to their own voters, and stick to state policy.

____

The Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Opinion Editor Krys Fluker, Jennifer A. Marcial Ocasio, Jay Reddick and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Contact us at insight@orlandosentinel.com .