TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Legislature can’t seem to make up its mind about what kind of government is best — small and local, or big and centralized.
As state lawmakers rail against Washington’s top-down governance, they are pushing several bills that strip power away from city and county governments.
“I understand that there are times when local [governance] is important,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and former school superintendent. “There are other times when the state has a legitimate right as the parent of local governments…to exercise our jurisdiction.”
The deciding factor, in many cases, is what the business lobby wants. Most of the preemption efforts can be traced back to business interests, who spend millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions and wield considerable power in Tallahassee.
Ron Book, a Tallahassee lobbyist who represents several local governments and business interests, acknowledged that corporations have more clout in Tallahassee than cities and counties.
“They are laser focused, while these local governments are scattershot,’’ he said.
Book said he often tells state lawmakers — many of whom were local officials before coming to Tallahassee — to “remember where you came from.”
Dominated by conservatives, Florida’s Legislature finds itself in an awkward position on the issue of local preemption. Lawmakers passionately endorse small government and federalism, while occasionally passing down strict mandates from Tallahassee that locals see as heavy-handed.
Democrats protesting the local preemption bills use many of the same arguments Republicans use to deride Washington, including accusations of “big government.”
“This does feel like another Tallahassee power grab,” said Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, speaking about a bill banning local “wage theft” prevention programs. “We’re taking away the ability of local governments to create policy that they think represents the values of local voters.”
His comments mirrored those made by Gaetz as he discussed federal healthcare reform last week.
“You have a growing number of states that are asking the federal government for some kind of flexibility to fashion a solution that works in their state,” said Gaetz, talking about Medicaid expansion. He blamed Washington for putting Florida in a “strait-jacket” with mandates and regulations that can’t be tailored at the local level.
In addition to the “wage theft” bill, lawmakers are moving to ban city and county governments from creating local programs for paid sick-time and “living wages.” Bills that would prohibit local governments from passing laws regarding environmental regulations, growth management and land use have also been proposed.
Legislators say the bans are necessary to create a streamlined system of regulations that apply statewide.
Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, is backing a bill that would ban local ordinances mandating “sick time” benefits for employees.
“If you have an employer who has multiple locations, you can imagine if you have to deal with a quiltwork, a patchwork of various regulations in the local governments,” he said. “It would be a disaster.”