Florida Senate Bill 620 Puts a High Price on Autonomy
In their zeal to punish local governments, to show city councils and county commissioners who’s the real boss, Florida lawmakers are considering a plan that would end up hurting their own constituents for trying to protect the quality of life in their hometowns.
Legislators often say that the government closest to the people governs best. But for many years now, Republican lawmakers have felt free to preempt state authority, barring cities and counties from passing local laws in certain areas while imposing statewide requirements. ‘state in others.
Sponsors of pre-emption bills invariably insist that uniformity is desirable, to have a standard from Pensacola to the Keys, but local governments are fighting back – as far as they can – with lawsuits. on things like banning mask mandates and local gun regulations.
But now lawmakers are moving beyond simply tying the hands of city and county commissioners. Many of them want to allow businesses to use the threat of litigation against local business regulations.
A fast-track Senate bill, approved by a near-party line vote of 22 to 14 last week, is an unnecessary and punitive act of financial bullying that challenges the concept of self-governance.
Republican leadership on the fourth floor of the Capitol appears determined to let commercial operators sue local boards of directors for passing local ordinances that impact their profits by 15% or more.
It’s a potentially crippling financial threat, giving business owners and their lawyers nothing to lose for harassing local governments and providing a strong incentive for mayors and other local officials to play it safe and do nothing, to fear of being sued.
Basically, under Senate Bill 620, a company that has been in business for at least three years could sue for damages if a city or county passes a bylaw that damages that company’s profits by 15%. A related House bill has made it past its first committee and has another stop before it hits the ground.
In addition to recovering lost profits, companies could recover attorneys’ fees and related costs from a lawsuit. The Senate has mitigated the impact with language allowing for settlement talks before lawsuits and exemptions for local governments to comply with state or federal law mandates, but the threat remains.
And where would cities and counties get money to pay for such judgments, fees and costs? You know the answer – the same place where they get all their income from you and me.
The Senate also passed a “transparency” law requiring local governments to assess the financial impact of new ordinances and regulations. The legislation (SB 280) would require boards to publish on their websites the purpose, estimated economic impact on companies and compliance costs of the new rules.
“The bills we passed today work together to address the challenges existing businesses face when local governments impose new regulations,” said Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustin, sponsor of the two bills.
He said they provide “the right balance between respecting the role of local government and protecting local businesses”.
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Of course, local regulations sometimes go too far.
There’s probably not a restaurant, retail store, or professional service in town that hasn’t complained about the denial of a permit, the imposition of a license fee, or the adoption of a ruler. Acting individually or through trade associations, companies can get local governments to change regulatory conditions or go to court to overturn them.
It continues all the time.
But suing the city when a local decision costs a company a percentage of profits would be an accounting and legal mess.
How do courts measure 15% loss of business profits? What criteria will we use to determine if these losses are due to a local ordinance, as opposed to the impact of COVID on the customer base – or simply a change in public tastes?
How much of a video store’s lost profit is attributable to a city diverting traffic patterns, as opposed to people streaming their entertainment live? Could a newspaper losing circulation sue the county and claim that something the commissioners did contributed to the loss, rather than a change in readers’ choices?
And what about quality of life issues? If a city closes bars at 2 a.m. instead of 5 a.m., it will reduce sales. Should the owners of the club get together and flood the town hall with lawsuits for damages? And if a city wants to limit “adult” entertainment to a certain area, should strip clubs and porn stores sue?
They can already do that, if an order is just a cover for censorship. Why should we add reduced profit margin as grounds for prosecution?
Perhaps plaintiffs’ law firms would bring in new lawyers and start a thriving practice representing companies upset with new regulations. For local governments, there would be an incentive to settle lawsuits – or do nothing at all that might cause a business owner to sue.
Bill Cotterell is a retired journalist from the Democratic capital of Tallahassee who writes a column twice a week. He can be contacted at [email protected]
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