Florida Senate bill puts a price on local regulations

The Florida Senate has an answer for local governments that want to regulate businesses: Go for it, but it’s going to cost you.

A bill that will allow companies to sue for damages if a local ordinance or voter-approved referendum costs their company 15% or more of their profits passed Thursday in a largely partisan 22-14 vote .

If it had been in effect in 2020, Key West residents who voted for banning cruise ships with more than 1,300 passengers from docking in the city’s ports would have been subject to paying cruise lines for lost business during the months the ban was in effect.

If it had been the law last year, Miami-Dade County, which imposed a fertilizer ban on lawns and plants during the rainy season to prevent algae blooms and fish kills, could have been forced to pay companies that experienced sharp declines in fertilizer sales.

And if the bill becomes law this year, Miami Beach residents, who voted in a nonbinding referendum last year to mandate earlier last-call hours for liquor sales at local bars , could be liable for damages if the new law results in losses Business.

These are just a few of dozens of local government orders targeted by Senate Speaker Wilton Simpson R-Trilby, who came up with the idea of ​​requiring businesses to be reimbursed for lost revenue if a local government passes an ordinance that costs them money.

All Senate Democrats voted against, saying it was yet another assault on autonomy and the state’s major metropolitan areas, where politics are more progressive than the GOP-dominated legislature.

“This bill will cause financial harm by allowing corporations to sue cities and counties for simply doing their job,” said Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, an opponent.

The Senate approved the measure, SB 620, with only one Republican, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, not in favor. It now goes to the House, where a related bill has not been heard.

Changes to the original invoice

The original version of the bill was fiercely opposed by local authorities who warned it would lead to a flurry of lawsuits when cities and counties pass noise ordinances, zoning rules or public safety measures aimed at to regulate businesses that the community regards as dangerous or inconvenient.

Florida TaxWatch, the business-backed research organization, warned in a new report published on Wednesday that the legislation “will lead to a number of financially motivated and malicious lawsuits, costing local governments more than $900 million a year.”

Facing widespread opposition, the sponsor, Sen. Travis Hutson of Palm Coast, proposed an amendment on Thursday that significantly weakened the original bill. The Florida League of Cities, which had opposed it, declared itself neutral.

The Senate approved the amendment and the bill now requires a company to operate in a city or county for three years before it can sue. But if those suing are successful, the companies could recoup up to seven years of lost profits.

Once a complaint against a local government is filed, the bill allows the city or county to avoid paying damages by doing any of the following three things:

Repeal the offending ordinance.

Amend the ordinance so as to remove the offending provision.

Grant the company a hardship waiver, which would be determined by the local government.

“His enough to turn this from a life-threatening injury to a punch in the gut,” said Rebecca O’Hara, lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities. “That doesn’t mean it’s it’s okay, and there are a lot of unknowns about how this will play out in the real world. But we put safeguards in there to give local governments enough options.

O’Hara said local governments could crack down on pill mills and strip clubs that have been operating for less than three years, but might not allow them to go after established businesses that start hosting undesirable activities – such as a convenience store operating as an “internet cafe” to conduct gray market gambling.

There is a clause to avoid nuisance lawsuits

To remove the incentive to sue for phishing, blaming taxpayers for frivolous legal action, the bill requires the prevailing party to pay attorney’s fees.

And to ensure that local governments are not held accountable when enforcing state laws, the bill prohibits lawsuits if the legislature has expressly authorized them to implement warrants, tax local options and other protections.

Simpson said Thursday he hoped the bill would have stopped “all pre-emption bills” that have been proposed in the past nine years.

This list includes bills drafted by the natural gas industry and utilities and passed last year that prevent local governments from regulating the generation and distribution of electricity, natural gas and petroleum products. This includes attempts to stop local governments from regulating vacation rentals and party homes, banning sunscreens and imposing rules on where utility companies can install solar farms.

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, warned that if this bill tried to end preemption bills, he would say this and it does not. He unsuccessfully tried to persuade the Senate to create an exemption for affordable housing and tenant protections.

“Our local governments are struggling to deal with many issues, perhaps the most important of which is the affordable housing crisis we find ourselves in today,” he said.

Farmer noted that in Tallahassee, a local mobile home park is seeing its rates increase by 230%, and the county is considering providing assistance, such as imposing a rent control ordinance.

If the bill is passed, it would engage the responsibility of the government because if it does not allow rates to increase, it will result in monetary damages, he said.

Pizzo: It’s going too far

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, said the measure goes too far in nullifying the will of a local community, especially those working together to pass a local referendum in a popular vote to solve “a problem of nuisance or safety of persons”.

“Even in a situation where a super majority of people in my town vote for something, you’re forcing them to pay damages to a company,” he said.

Hutson confirmed that Florida would be the first state to enact such a provision.

The Senate also adopted an accompanying measure, SB 280, this will require local governments to make an economic impact statement for ordinances before passing them and give any resulting legal challenges accelerated priority in court. It passed with more Democratic support in a 28-8 vote.

Miami Herald writers Joey Flechas, Martin Vassolo and Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.

Mary Ellen Klas: [email protected] and @MaryEllenKlas

This story was originally published January 27, 2022 8:04 p.m.

Mary Ellen Klas is the State Capitol Bureau Chief for the Miami Herald, where she covers government and politics and focuses on investigative and accountability reporting. In 2018-2019, Mary Ellen served as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and was named the 2019 Murrey Marder Nieman Fellow in Watchdog Journalism. In 2018, she won the Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. The Herald’s Statehouse office is a joint operation with the Tampa Bay Times Statehouse staff. Please support his work with a digital subscription. You can reach her at [email protected] and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.

Richard L. Militello