Five Basic Things Florida Cities Can't Do Thanks to Preemption Laws

Environmentalists say single-use plastics pollute the oceans, causing damage to ecosystems.
Environmentalists say single-use plastics pollute the oceans, causing damage to ecosystems. Photo by Bo Eide / Flickr
South Florida politics can be mind-numbingly dumb. Here you'll find near-unparalleled incompetence, corruption, and cruelty, forcing even the most civic-minded of residents to acclimate to a brew of dysfunction in everyday life. To make matters even more maddening, state officials have taken to blocking any half-decent law that, but for the grace of God, squeaked through any of South Florida's many seedy city commissions.

This week, New Times dug into a new report highlighting the arbitrary manner in which Florida Republicans have banned localities from passing their own laws. That's right, that Republican party — home to Lincoln, Eisenhower, and all defenders of personal liberty and small government, unless you disagree with them on politics, that is. Then Big Brother suddenly becomes a cudgel used by Florida Republicans to beat down rogue cities that rub big-dollar donors the wrong way. Acting in the interest of wealthy interests and lobbyists, state Republicans have passed one preemption law after another, shooting down efforts by left-leaning localities to regulate firearms and raise their minimum wage.

But this is South Florida, so of course things only get dumber. Dissatisfied with kneecapping major initiatives by progressive cities and towns, Republicans in Tallahassee — and even Democrats, in rare instances — have resorted to going after the even most trivial of laws.

1. The town of Surfside passed and then rescinded a law prohibiting most single-use plastics in a stunning about-face. This was no innocent change of heart either. Surfside officials were sincere in their efforts to combat Florida's massive plastic pollution problems by expanding their existing ban on plastic to include bags, utensils, and dinnerware. For a few weeks, the victory remained unmarred. Then came the Florida Retail Federation. Since 2017, when Coral Gables passed a ban on plastic bags, the business juggernaut has bounced around South Florida, claiming the scalp of any legislation that runs awry of a 2008 law preventing local governments from regulating recyclable materials. The final nail in the coffin was an additional preemption law passed in 2017, which opened the door to localities being held responsible for the cost of any failed legal challenges to Florida's laws.

2. The City of Miami clashes with state legislators over its vanishing tree canopy. The Miami area has, at least on paper, worked to protect the towering oaks and mahoganies that define its many cities. That mission became a far more difficult one in 2019, when the Florida Legislature passed a bill prohibiting localities from regulating tree removals on private property. Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell told New Times in July: "This [state] law was written with good intentions, but... it poses a danger that unscrupulous arborists and speculative developers can go hog-wild cutting trees to make room for developments." Despite pressure from the new state law, Miami has chosen to fight attempts at preemption and maintains that residents who don't follow city rules could face punishment.

3. Miami Beach's efforts to regulate Lyft and Uber drivers have been hampered by state laws. In the interest of alleviating traffic and softening the blow felt by taxi drivers in the area, two Miami Beach commissioners formed a plan in 2018 to regulate the disruption caused by tech companies Uber and Lyft. The previous year, Florida lawmakers had passed a bill banning local governments from regulating ride-hailing companies. So instead of working on a local bill that would surely be shot down, Commissioner Michael Góngora and then-Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez appealed to the beneficence of the state Legislature to ask that Miami Beach be allowed to set a cap on the number of for-hire drivers on the road. Unsurprisingly, the request fell on largely deaf ears. 

4. Florida lawmakers don't want you to know what's in your food. In 2017, Florida was one of just nine states that passed laws blocking local regulation of nutrition. What that meant in effect for Florida residents was that restaurants, thanks to the relentless work of industry lobbyists, were not required to disclose the nutritional value of their food and drinks. Interested in how much sugar is in that cocktail? Too bad. As Sun Sentinel columnist Fred Grimm wrote, many of these meddlesome laws preempt common sense.

5. State lawmakers ran to the aid of oppressed vegetable garden owners. The 2017 legislative session was a doozy for state preemption, producing an incredibly dumb ban on localities stopping people from growing vegetable gardens on their properties. That Florida lawmakers would feel the need to get so patriarchal when it comes to the freedom to grow corn stalks in one's backyard seems almost bizarre when considering Republicans' frothy-mouthed attempts to preempt localities from recognizing the rights of transgender residents years earlier. In other words, it's tyrannical for a community to rule that it doesn't want Joe-on-the-corner's apple trees growing all over the place, but it's not government overreach to try to pass a bill that jails people for going to the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. 
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Manuel Madrid is a former staff writer for Miami New Times. The child of Venezuelan immigrants, he grew up in Pompano Beach. He studied finance at Virginia Commonwealth University and worked as a writing fellow for the magazine The American Prospect in Washington, D.C.