In a proposal drawing heavy fire from local governments, a Senate committee Tuesday approved a measure that could lead to cities and counties facing lawsuits because of decisions that result in reduced revenue or profits for businesses.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-4 to back the proposal (SB 620), which would allow businesses to sue if local ordinances cause at least a 15% loss of revenue or profits. The bill would apply to businesses that have been operating for at least three years.
SB 620 provides exemptions, including for local government ordinances, declarations or orders that are passed because of an emergency.
Florida Legislature special session: Banning COVID mandates, planning a Florida OSHA
Sponsor Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, said the requirements of at least 15% losses and three years in business create a “pretty high threshold.” He said the bill would give the businesses an avenue to recover revenue.
“It’s to give the businesses that may be hard-working and can’t show up at the county council or the county commission that are getting affected what, I think, is severely 15% … they’re getting hammered by an ordinance and right now, the government’s just saying, ‘Sorry this is what we’re doing,’” Hutson said.
While the threshold will likely change as the bill is refined, Hutson chose the 15% mark as a starting point, he said in an interview with The Record on Wednesday.
"I was trying to figure out what would affect a business to the point where it would actually hurt," he said.
One goal of the proposed legislation is that "elected officials will hopefully see the … harm they could potentially cause to a business, and then they would weigh those decisions," Hutson said.
But Seminole County Commissioner Lee Constantine, a former state senator, said the bill would have a “chilling effect” on the ability of local officials to address residents' concerns and would drive up costs.
“This bill, in essence, takes away our legislative powers ― what we’re voted to do, just like you are, to take care of local problems,” Constantine said to senators.
The proposal came after years of lawmakers considering ― and often passing ― bills to take away decision-making powers from local governments on everything from ride-sharing services to regulation of sunscreen. The so-called “preemption” bills have often been prompted by specific local situations.
With his bill, Hutson said he wants to curb preemption fights in the Legislature and have disputes resolved at the local level. The bill is modeled after a longstanding state law known as the Bert J. Harris Private Property Rights Protection Act, which allows property owners to file lawsuits if government decisions have “inordinately burdened” property use.
Guarding against state legislation that could bring negative consequences for local governments is a regular battle for local officials.
The Florida League of Cities recognized both St. Augustine City Manager John Regan and Vice Mayor Nancy Sikes-Kline with a 2021 Home Rule Hero Award for their work in Tallahassee in 2021.
Among other issues, Regan and Sikes-Kline worked against efforts of state lawmakers to have the state take control of vacation rental regulations. The city's efforts to regulate vacation rentals drew debate in the community and criticism from vacation rental operators who said the new rules cut down on their income.
Officials with the City of St. Augustine could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday about SB 620.
St. Johns County released a statement saying only that the "St. Johns County Administration and the County Attorney’s Office are currently reviewing Florida Senate Bill 620 for any potential impacts it may have on the county."
The bill drew support Tuesday from groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Retail Federation and Americans for Prosperity-Florida. But it drew opposition from groups such as the Florida Association of Counties, the Florida League of Cities, the Florida AFL-CIO and Sierra Club Florida.
Wakulla County Commissioner Ralph Thomas, president of the Florida Association of Counties, said the measure would force counties to settle lawsuits and pay attorney fees and would “redistribute taxpayer dollars.”
“I think this bill is ripe for causing more problems than solutions,” said Thomas, who described himself as a lifelong small-government Republican.
Sen. Tina Polsky, a Boca Raton Democrat who opposed the bill, said she is concerned about local governments being the “bogeyman for everything” and that they “are not about hampering businesses.”
“Basically, this bill is just a carte blanche ability to sue local government over something that a business doesn’t like,” Polsky said.
Hutson and other supporters said Senate Bill 620, which is filed for the 2022 legislative session, could undergo changes. But Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the bill is about the “principle of taking” by governments, and people should have recourse in such situations.
“I love the spirit of the bill,” Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, said. “We’re a big state. We have hundreds of jurisdictions that make decisions, and sometimes they get it wrong.”
― Reporter Sheldon Gardner from The St. Augustine Record contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on St. Augustine Record: Sen. Travis Hutson sponsors bill to allow local governments to be sued