What home rule? How Florida lawmakers try to take power away from cities

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click to enlarge St. Pete City Councilmember Lisa Wheeler-Bowman was shocked to discover that state laws prevented her from expressing her views on gun control. - Kevin Tighe
Kevin Tighe
St. Pete City Councilmember Lisa Wheeler-Bowman was shocked to discover that state laws prevented her from expressing her views on gun control.

When St. Petersburg City Councilwoman Lisa Wheeler-Bowman proposed to join a call for stronger restrictions on assault rifles in the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub massacre, she didn’t know the measure might have opened up the city to a lawsuit.

City attorneys advised her to withdraw the resolution, which was merely symbolic in nature and had no teeth whatsoever, because of a state law preempting cities and counties from passing any laws pertaining to guns. If a city council wants to pass a local ordinance banning guns in city parks, members risk lawsuits, removal from office and even jail time.

“Imagine being told that, as a councilperson, you cannot speak, not even your opinion on any type of gun regulations,” Wheeler-Bowman said.

The State Attorney General’s office recently opined that the state law preempting gun ordinances doesn’t apply to resolutions, but city legal staff’s reticence on the issue was not misplaced.

For years, as the ideological gap between Florida’s urban areas and state lawmakers has grown wider, Republicans in the majority have sought to restrict cities’ power to pass local laws. It’s called preemption, and in recent years, lawmakers have barred cities from passing plastic bag and styrofoam bans, prohibiting guns on city-owned land and setting a citywide minimum wage. It doesn’t matter whether a city council or county commission unanimously supports banning plastic bags, or if thousands of citizens show up at city hall to call for a $12-an-hour minimum wage. The looming 2017 legislative session will likely have a series of showdowns over home rule.

“Imagine feeling like you have your hands tied,” Wheeler-Bowman said. “I mean, how can you tell a city what to do? Come on, now.”

While the legislature’s attempts at preemption have met resistance — Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum is fighting for cities’ ability to write their own gun laws — there’s nothing cities can really do.

“For a long time, the legislature gave cities authority and they let them go on with their business,” said Sally Everett, St. Petersburg’s legislative liaison. “But the pendulum seems to be swinging to the states knowing better than the cities what should be happening in those cities.”

This session, which begins in early March, lawmakers have filed bills that would restrict cities’ abilities to levy taxes on business, to prevent cell phone towers from going up in places they’re not wanted, and to mandate that contractors carrying out public works projects use an apprenticeship program to train ex-felons and disadvantaged youth.

But a bill filed by two east coast Republican members of the State House is “the mother of all preemption bills,” says St. Petersburg City Council Chair Darden Rice.

The broadly written House Bill 17 would bar cities and counties from passing literally any laws pertaining to businesses. It would make it illegal for cities to pass everything from plastic straw bans to zoning laws that keep strip clubs from opening in residential areas. It would also sunset similar laws that are already on the books.

It could also reverse decades of progress on LGBT equality.

“The reason it caught my eye is that it put LGBT human rights ordinances in serious jeopardy,” said Hannah Willard, public policy director of Equality Florida. “It would set a sunset date for all human rights ordinances for the year 2020 and it would prohibit the passage of any new policies from here forward, and in fact, would prohibit the implementation of the recently passed Jacksonville ordinance.”

The bill’s two House sponsors, Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay) and Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast), did not respond to calls and emails in time for CL’s deadline.

The bill has yet to be introduced in the state Senate and may not last long in the House, but the specter of preemption is still on the minds of local leaders and progressive activists, who point to what they see as Republican hypocrisy on the concept of home rule.

“Florida’s Republican legislative leadership loves to talk local control and less big government, that is until their big money campaign contributors come calling,” said Mark Ferrulo, director of Progress Florida, in an emailed statement. “When that happens, Republican leaders in the legislature fall over themselves in a rush to pre-empt local ordinances that benefit working families, the environment, and public safety. Their political tenet of local control takes a back seat to the wishes of big monied interest every time.”

To weigh in on preemption bills and other state-level issues, find contact info for your State Representative here. (If you're new to this, find out who that is here.)

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