In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Tallahassee sticks it to the locals

Our good ol’ boys in Tallahassee surely do resent those meddlers from Washington sticking their big government noses in Florida’s business. “We know what’s best for Florida,” they’re fond of saying.

To make that very point, in rather expensive fashion, the Florida House passed a bill that would reject billions of federal dollars for expanded Medicaid coverage and leave a million or so of the state’s poor without access to health care.

“The Florida House has developed a plan that will fit the needs of Florida, not the requirements of Washington,” said Speaker Will Weatherford, as if reciting a mantra.

The locals-know-best governing philosophy lies at the steely heart of conservatism and it can’t be bought off. Not in this legislature. Not even with $51 billion in federal dollars.

Except that philosophy only runs in one direction. These same legislators dearly love passing preemption bills that undercut city and county governments and water management districts.

Local governments have been prohibited from passing any gun ordinance that exceeds state law. So, under a preemption statute passed in 2011, towns and counties that outlawed guns in playgrounds or parks or public buildings risked $500,000 fines, while individual city and county commissioners could be fined $5,000 each and removed from office.

The NRA’s famous and feared lobbyist Marion Hammer explained that the preemption statute was needed because upstart local governments were acting like “disobedient teenagers.”

State preemption of these disobedient teenies goes well beyond gun laws. The same state law that bans smoking in workplaces and restaurants forbids city and county ordinances that might further limit smoking at bars, music venues, patio dining areas, parks, beaches and playgrounds.

Cities and counties can’t ban pit bulls (Miami-Dade County managed a special home-rule exemption). Local governments can’t enact limits on beekeeping. Or ban exotic animals, even jungle cats. If a homeowner has a state wildlife permit for a wolf or a tiger or a black mamba, there’s nothing a city commission can do about it.

Local governments can’t enact new laws against short-term vacation rentals. And state law forbids those disobedient teenagers from passing laws banning stores from using plastic bags. We’ll have none of that environmental nonsense coming out of local governments.

A passel of preemption bills, most of them ghost written by special-interest lobbyists, are percolating through the 2013 legislative session. A so-called wage-theft bill was clearly aimed at keeping other counties from copying a 2010 Miami-Dade ordinance, very unpopular with the business lobby, that established an administrative procedure outside the courts to allow workers to recover unpaid wages. So far, the Miami-Dade program has recovered $600,000 in lost pay. The business lobbies could hardly abide something like that in other counties. When in doubt, preempt.

Similarly, bills are circulating that would outlaw county or city ordinances establishing a local “living wage” or mandating sick leave.

A preemption bill would limit the power of local government to impose impact fees on developers. Another would negate local environmental protections.

The fertilizer industry is pushing a bill that would supersede the 50 or so local ordinances that regulate the use of lawn fertilizer. The Sierra Club’s Cris Costello went a little ballistic as she watched the fertilizer bill gain momentum. “Taxpayers and local governments made it clear that when it comes to protecting their waterfront economic engines from toxic brown and red tides and green slime, it’s crazy for the legislature to tie their hands,” Costello wrote in a position paper released this week.

She noted the sorry state of the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County. “You’d think that everyone affected by the loss of fisheries, the dead manatees and shorebirds, and the stain on the Indian River Lagoon’s reputation as a fishing and vacation destination would praise local efforts to control pollution — especially when those efforts are aimed at cost-free prevention rather than expensive taxpayer-funded clean-up projects.

“You’d be wrong,” she wrote.

If the bill, drafted by industry lobbyists, becomes law, a so-called “Florida Fertilizer Regulatory Review Council,” dominated, of course, by industry insiders, would write “one-size-fits-all” rules for the entire state.

Our state legislators clearly hold to a philosophy that local government knows best. Right up to the moment when the lobbyists say otherwise.

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