Does Tallahassee dictate too much to cities, counties?

State capitol building in tallhassee florida 
Florida Capitol

State senate, state house of representatives
Scott Keeler/ St. Petersburg Times
State capitol building in tallhassee florida Florida Capitol State senate, state house of representatives Scott Keeler/ St. Petersburg Times Tampa Bay times

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.”

Yet, on other issues, Florida has embraced the so-called “patchwork” as a virtue of small government flexibility, even when it meant different rules for businesses.

The Legislature has given local governments authority to tax businesses and services at different rates, enact local sales tax increases, create “enterprise zones” with special regulations for business development and regulate development locally. Lawmakers have also embraced more local jurisdiction over “tourist development taxes” and “manufacturing development zones” this year.

In trying to fix the state’s problem-rigged elections system, the Florida Senate passed a bill Wednesday giving local counties flexibility over how many hours of voting to offer in the weeks before Election Day.

Democrats, who have pushed for uniform early voting statewide, pounced on the inconsistency, using words like “patchwork” and “discretion.” A minority in the Legislature, Democrats have also come down on both sides of the local control debate.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said he hears often that Tallahassee lawmakers are being “inconsistent” on local control, but doesn’t agree.

“Home rule is not a blank check to allow local governments to do whatever they want to do,” he said. “It’s a delicate balance. There are some things that are properly reserved to the state, some things that are properly reserved for the federal government, and some things that are properly reserved for the local government.”

Florida’s “home rule” statutes have been on the books since the Constitution was revised in 1968, giving local governments power to self-govern on issues not preempted by the state. The state has used its preemption powers selectively over the years, taking on hot-button issues like gun regulation and tobacco laws in the 1980s.

As counties and cities have become more independent, businesses have sought preemption from Tallahassee lawmakers to protect their interests.

Companies that have lost battles in local court or with local officials have sent teams of lobbyists to the state Capitol to get the law changed. They are often successful in the business-friendly Legislature.

Bills this year affecting alimony, high-school athletics, property taxes, wetlands permitting, lawn fertilizers and condo foreclosures all seek to usurp power from local decision-makers in favor of the state. Lawmakers backing the bills point to scenarios where local officials and judges have abused their powers and need to be reined in.

Here are a few of the preemption bills currently pending in the Florida Legislature:

Wage Theft

For the past three years, the business lobby has pushed for a bill outlawing the “wage theft” ordinance that Miami-Dade County enacted in 2010. That ordinance created a local administrative program to help workers recover unpaid wages from their employers.

A business group took Miami-Dade County to court over the ordinance, but a judge tossed the case last year. Now, lawmakers are pushing to stop other counties from creating similar ordinances. HB 1125, which passed the Florida House on a 71-45 vote last week, would force workers to take their bosses to court to recoup their lost wages.

Proponents say it will create a unified standard across the state to deal with the problem of wage theft.

“We just need a simple process, that sees (workers) get paid,’ said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, adding that businesses needed to be protected from litigious employees.

But critics argue that programs like the one in Miami-Dade — which has saved workers more than $600,000 — show that counties can, and should, solve their own problems.

Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat who represents Little Havana, has worked on wage theft cases as a legal services lawyer and opposes HB 1125.

“I don’t see any justification for both cutting down people’s rights and also making it more difficult for local governments to help their own citizens,” he said.

The bill offers an exemption for Miami-Dade and Broward counties--which already have wage theft programs—but bans other counties from following suit.

Living Wage, Sick-Time laws

Backed by the business lobby, lawmakers are moving bills this year to outlaw local governments from creating ordinances related to “earned sick time” and “living wages.” The ordinances, which are on the books or being considered in South Florida and Orange County, require businesses to offer wages or benefits that are higher than the minimum wage.

In Miami-Dade County, companies that get government contracts must pay a “living wage,” an hourly payment significantly higher than the state’s $7.79 minimum wage. In Orange County, voters are seeking to create an “earned sick time” law. It would require companies in the area to provide sick time benefits for employees.

Worried that the Orange County ballot effort would hurt profits and lead to copycat laws elsewhere, businesses like Disney and Darden Restaurants have mobilized to strike it down in Tallahassee.

“This patchwork would create a cumbersome maze of county-by-county leave policies – driving up costs and decreasing the opportunity to create jobs,” said David Hart, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, in a statement.

If the bill passes this week, a pending ballot referendum in Orange County scheduled for 2014 would be rendered moot. Worker activists have accused Tallahassee lawmakers of trouncing on the rights of local voters, who gathered 50,000 signatures for a sick-time ballot initiative.

Stephanie Porta, of the Florida Coalition for Local Control, called the bill a “scheme to deny local governments and citizens the right to vote on local laws [and] part of a larger effort to deprive citizens of their right to vote.”

Local lawmakers also feel slighted by the Tallahassee mandates.

The Miami commission voted unanimously to urge the Florida Legislature to abandon the preemption effort.

“I hate to see the state telling us what to do,” said City Commissioner Willy Gort, during a meeting last week. “We’ve got our home rule that we have to provide, and we can make our own rules.”

Growth Management, Environmental Regulations

In 2011, the Legislature passed a sweeping growth management bill that gave local governments more authority to regulate development. The bill gained support of the Florida Association of Counties and the League of Cities, groups that endorse local control.

This year, the Legislature is rolling back many of those reforms, with preemption bills that bar local governments from imposing “impact fees” and “mobility fees” on developers.

Lawmakers say the fees harm job creation, but city and county advocates are unhappy by the about-face.

Local environmental regulations — also the bane of developers — have been in the Legislature’s cross-hairs as well.

Legislators are moving bills that preempt environmental permitting and fertilizer restrictions adopted by local governments as part of their groundwater protection efforts.

"Every year, we face a slew of bills that take away local government decision making totally away,’’ said Eric Draper, director of Audubon of Florida.

HB 999, which was passed on Thursday by the House, includes a provision that specifically targets the city of Rockledge, in the district of Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.

Under a last-minute amendment tacked onto the bill last week, any local government that had adopted an ordinance regulating wetlands after March 4, 2013, would be barred from enacting it. Rockledge approved a wetlands protections ordinance on March 5.

Miami Herald reporter Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this article. Toluse Olorunnipa can be reached at tolorunnipa@MiamiHerald.com or on Twitter at @ToluseO.

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