Lobbyists, environmentalists, and representatives of a variety of civic organizations filled a Senate committee meeting room to COVID-limited capacity Wednesday for the first skirmish in what is expected to be a 60-day battle over home rule.
Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, has crafted what critics call “the mother of all preemptions.” It’s a two-bill proposal that Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, said is the “actualization of a nightmare” for cities and counties.
When Hutson introduced his bill (SB 280) to the Community Affairs Committee, he explained it as the first step to achieve Senate President Wilton Simpson's goal to rein in local regulations for things like sick leave for workers or where are guns are allowed.
2022 Florida legislative session begins: On first day of Florida session, Democrats say DeSantis, Republicans 'running train off the tracks'
Among other things, the measure:
Requires local governments to compile an economic impact statement before enacting an ordinance.
Enables businesses to legally challenge the economic impact findings or any ordinance they believe violates federal or state law.
Entitles businesses to collect up to $50,000 in attorney fees if they win.
“At the end of the day we are the last line of defense (against) cities that go rogue,” Hutson said.
Another bill (SB 620), he told the committee, allows businesses to sue to recover any revenue loss to an ordinance a judge invalidates as “arbitrary.”
Both would be “guardrails” to keep local governments in line and, if passed, the Legislature wouldn't need to do any further preemptions.
Lobbyists for cities and counties tried to get lawmakers to lessen the financial threats the bill poses to local governments.
The Florida League of Cities explained how costs for a business impact statement could easily spiral out of control, with expert testimony costing around $400 an hour. And the Florida Association of Counties asked lawmakers to consider limiting who has standing to file suit and to give courts discretion to dismiss frivolous or improper lawsuits.
In its current form, the bill is “a trial lawyer’s dream come true,” said 1000 Friends of Florida's policy and planning director Jane West, a former trial lawyer.
After listening to concerns of a dozen speakers that the bill “tilts the scale of justice” towards business, an exasperated Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, chimed in.
“Businesspeople are part of the community. (They're) where you go to fund projects,” said Baxley, surveying the room as he spoke. “They are not your enemy. They are the backbone of the community.”
But others said the measure would enable businesses to invalidate regulation of alcohol sales, puppy mills, municipal broadband, rent control and conversion therapy.
“Why do we have local governments if we are going to allow a business or citizen to tie their hands with lawsuits,” asked Trish Neely, membership chair of the League of Women Voters.
The opposing voices had no sway, however: The bill was cleared in a 6-2 party-line vote.
Hutson's bill has two more committees before it can head to the Senate floor.
SB 620 awaits a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee
Never miss a story: Subscribe to the Tallahassee Democrat using the link at the top of the page.
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Florida lawmaker wants guardrails for local government business regulations