Florida Republicans Are Going to War Against Small Government

State Rep. Jose Oliva
State Rep. Jose Oliva Florida House of Representatives
click to enlarge State Rep. Jose Oliva - FLORIDA HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
State Rep. Jose Oliva
Florida House of Representatives
Miami state Rep. Jose Oliva, the current speaker of the Florida House, is a hardcore ideologue who believes, generally speaking, in Koch FBrothers-style, pro-business, libertarian-esque Republicanism. Oliva believes America's economic system is inherently fair and that successful people "earned" their money, which is rich, since before he went into politics, he was a cigar-company owner who got rich off a tobacco-growing business his dad had set up decades ago.

This year's legislative session was Oliva's first as House speaker. For years, he's said he supports the state's right to "preempt" towns from making their own laws as a way to stop local governments from, in his mind, improperly interfering with business, the economy, or people's lives. And, under his leadership, the Florida GOP in 2019 made good: It pitched a slew of preemption laws to hamper local towns' rights to regulate everything from plastic straws all the way to job responsibilities, work hours, and employee benefits.

This is not exactly a new phenomenon: Numerous articles have outlined how Republican-dominated state legislatures across the U.S. are increasingly working to stop left-leaning towns and cities from governing themselves. But, at least in Florida, the practice now seems to be going into overdrive. Despite Oliva's promises that he doesn't believe in the concept of "corporate welfare," Tallahassee's preemption bills are exactly that — bills that, in virtually every case, protect harmful or controversial business industries that local governments want to regulate, monitor, or outright kill.

The Florida GOP is, in a nutshell, using the larger powers of the state to restrict small governments everywhere — actions that expose the party's "small government" platform as a flat-out lie. Here's a list of bills that explain why.

1. Before the 2019 session began, the Florida GOP had already hamstrung local towns with a number of preemption laws — most notably, preventing them from enacting their own gun-control legislation and setting their own minimum wages. Miami Beach sued to try to overturn the minimum-wage law but failed.
In June 2016, the City of Miami Beach voted to eventually raise its minimum wage to $13.31 per hour. The move sounds innocuous enough, but it was a shot across the bow of state legislators: Florida law actually bans local municipalities from setting their own wages higher than the state's $8.10 per hour. But Miami Beach officials, including Mayor Philip Levine, contended the state's law was illegal. Levine even shouted, "I'll see you in court" at Gov. Rick Scott, who teamed up with some of the state's largest corporations, including Publix and Disney, to try to kill the Beach's law.

Well, today the state won the first round in what will surely be a long legal fight over the wage hike. Circuit Court Judge Peter R. Lopez issued a ruling declaring Miami Beach's Living Wage Ordinance invalid, setting up an appeals fight that will likely end in the Florida Supreme Court.

"The city's wage ordinance is not valid under 218.077 Fla. Stat., which preempts local minimum wages," Lopez wrote in his decision.

The initial ruling is a blow to Levine's legacy as Beach mayor. Levine, more than any other city official, had pushed for the wage hike and subsequent battle with Tallahassee.

"While I am extremely disappointed in today's ruling against Florida families, we expected that this case would ultimately end up before the Florida Supreme Court," Levine said via email. "Our legal team is working on a swift appeal to ensure that the will of Floridians expressed through the 2004 state constitutional amendment on minimum wage is fully implemented."

Miami Beach's lead counsel, Robert Rosenwald, said the city will file an immediate appeal.

2. Lawmakers in 2019 pitched at least 18 preemption bills, including a measure designed to take away cities' rights to set employee work-hour restrictions or mandate other benefits:

Via the Sun-Sentinel:
The Legislature has blocked local governments from exceeding the state’s piddling requirements for paid sick leave and minimum wage. They can’t regulate beekeepers, drones, ownership of dangerous animals, disposal of bio-waste or smoking in public venues.

City or county commissioners can be fined and tossed in prison just for attempting to pass firearm ordinances that the NRA finds offensive.

At least 18 preemption bills introduced in this legislative session would quash local jurisdiction over (among other issues) motorized scooters, vacation rentals, red light cameras, fertilizer and business licenses. And if Sen. Hutson’s bill becomes law, cities won’t be able to do a damn thing about plastic straws. Not without risking a $25,000 fine.

Hutson was clever. His bill — a love note for grocery and restaurant industry lobbyists — won’t outright prohibit a plastic straw ban. Rather local governments will be required to wait five years before enacting or enforcing a ban, ostensibly to give the Florida Department of Environmental Protection time to study the issue.

Of course, a Florida school child only needs about five minutes to discover that remnants of plastic straws and other plastic discards are showing up in the digestive tracts of 90 percent of our sea birds and 30 percent of our turtles. Because the info is right there on the Department of Environmental Protection’s own website, along with other alarming facts supporting the state’s very own “Skip the Straw” campaign to discourage the proliferation of single-use plastic straws.

3. After the City of Miami passed a law forcing local developers to build affordable-housing units in one neighborhood, the Legislature tried to pass a bill that would have made those sorts of laws fully illegal from then on. A watered-down version of the law ultimately passed.

Via the Miami Herald:
In late 2018, Miami commissioners for the first time passed a ordinance that requires developers in a small 30-block area north of downtown to set aside a percentage of units for residents with low incomes, a measure that was seen by advocates as a small but crucial step toward addressing Miami’s housing affordability crisis.

The measure’s sponsor, Commissioner Ken Russell, believes the concept could be expanded if successful on a small scale. But if a bill moving through the Florida Legislature passes, the city’s first mandatory inclusionary zoning law might be its last.

House lawmakers voted largely on party lines Thursday to place limits on local governments’ ability to set ceilings for rents or home sale prices, despite concerns from some Democrats that the move could imperil mandatory affordable housing requirements that counties and municipalities can enact now.

HB 7103, which passed on a 72-37 vote, would preempt local governments from establishing their own rules on a number of development-related issues that could affect housing prices and cities’ ability to spend building fees and shorten the window of time the public has to review new construction projects.

4. Even local officials told the Miami Herald they felt Tallahassee was overstepping its authority:

Via the Miami Herald:
Ron Book, a lobbyist whose firm represents more than 20 cities and counties in Florida, said his clients have grown increasingly concerned about what they see as the Legislature preempting their powers.

“I think the last three years there’s been a real focus here on preemptions,” he said. Both former House Speaker Richard Corcoran and current Speaker José Oliva “do not believe in government interfering in people’s lives.”

Before the session began in earnest, Oliva told reporters one of his guiding principles would be to roll back what he saw as excessive government regulation.

“The greater the government involvement in something, the less there is true free market,” he said, referring in particular to education and healthcare. “The less that there’s competition ... the price goes up.”

But some local officials say the new laws usurp their authority.

Miami Beach City Attorney Raul Aguila said local governments should be concerned about the state Legislature’s “increased ‘weaponizing’ of the concept of preemption.”

“Year after year, the Legislature gets bolder and more outrageous in using this to prohibit local governments from passing progressive legislation,” Aguila said in an email. “Among the most sacred rights granted to cities under the Florida Constitution is their right to ‘home rule,’ which means that all cities have the individual right to craft their own local laws, as they see fit, so long as those laws don’t conflict with State or federal law.”

5. Most notably, Florida this year passed a law forcing each town to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement:
Florida's elected leaders last night made good on what was basically Gov. Ron DeSantis' central campaign promise — to deport more immigrants. Last night, the Legislature finally passed SB 168, the much-criticized "sanctuary city" ban, which forces municipalities to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and hold ICE detainees in local jails. Importantly, every city in Florida already does this.

Although Republicans control the state Senate, House, and governor's mansion, the bill barely succeeded. Legislators repeatedly amended it, bouncing the legislation between the House and Senate until late in the evening, when a heavily amended version ultimately cleared both chambers. DeSantis then announced he plans to sign the measure into law.

“Earlier this year, I asked the Florida Legislature to present me with a bill this session that upholds the rule of law and addresses sanctuary cities and counties in Florida," DeSantis said yesterday evening in a media release. "We are a stronger state when we protect our residents, foster safe communities and respect the work of law enforcement at every level. Local law enforcement agencies can and should work with the federal government to ensure that accountability and justice are one in our state. I’d like to thank Senate President Bill Galvano, House Speaker Jose Oliva, Senator Joe Gruters, and Representative Cord Byrd for recognizing the importance of this issue."

While Miami-Dade County Police Director Juan Perez has made similar statements, his department has already sent at least one victim to immigration authorities. Mabel Perez-Ordonez, a 38-year-old mother of three, visited an MDPD station while reporting a crime to authorities in February. MDPD responded by alerting ICE agents, who then detained and nearly deported her to Nicaragua. She later told New Times that she now warns immigrants to "think twice" before calling the cops to report a crime.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.