Five Times Florida's Powerful Retail Lobby Tried to Influence State Law

The Florida Retail Federation represents huge corporations, including Publix, Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, and Target.
The Florida Retail Federation represents huge corporations, including Publix, Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, and Target. Photo by Josh Hallett / Flickr
The Florida Retail Federation (FRF) is one of the most powerful political forces in the state. The federation itself isn't a household name, but its members sure are: The FRF represents huge corporations, including Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, Target, and Publix. There's arguably no group of companies in the state more formidable than the FRF, except maybe Florida's ultrapowerful public utilities.

So it's not exactly surprising that, once again, the state retail lobby is flexing its might in Tallahassee. Just last week, the City of Surfside was forced to initiate a repeal of its ban on plastic bags, a move designed to decrease litter, after the FRF pushed state lawmakers to block bans on plastic bags across Florida. That law is exactly as dumb as it sounds — and is just one of the many ways in which the FRF helps rig state law to make life easier for the people who run America's biggest retail chains. Here's a rundown of what they've been up to lately:

1. Suing to keep minimum wages low:
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.

2. Fighting bans on plastic bags:
A mere six weeks ago, Surfside commissioners passed a sweeping ban of most single-use plastics in an effort to rid the town of plastic bags, utensils, and dinnerware. At the time, Mayor Daniel Dietch praised the ban as a reasonable measure that would help reduce plastic pollution in the oceanside community.

"It's a statement this town can make, and it's going to have a cascading effect," Dietch said at a June meeting.

But only a few days after Surfside passed the ordinance, the town received a threatening letter from the Florida Retail Federation, a powerful lobbying group that represents big-box retailers including Publix, Target, and Walmart. Because state law prohibits local municipalities from regulating plastic bags, the Florida Retail Federation hinted it could sue Surfside to overturn the ban — and then recoup attorneys' fees, costs, and damages from local taxpayers.

"This ordinance as enacted is unlawful, and we respectfully urge the Town to repeal it," the federation's letter stated.

Facing the threat of a costly court battle, Surfside commissioners last week gave an initial vote to repeal the town's plastic bag ban. 

3. Trying to put petty thieves in prison longer:
If you steal anything worth $300 or more in Florida, you can be convicted of a felony, lose your voting rights, and go to jail for quite a while. That is an absurdly low amount in 2019. It's the second-lowest felony theft threshold in America, behind New Jersey. Florida hasn't updated the number since 1987. Adjusted for inflation, what was worth $300 in 1987 costs $647 today. You can be imprisoned for five years because you tried to walk out of a big-box store with a cell phone or five PlayStation games.

Justice-reform advocates on the left and right have been trying to raise that threshold for years, but one massively powerful lobbying group has stood in the way: the Florida Retail Federation, the largest big-retail-business lobbying group in the state. The federation, which represents Target, Walmart, Publix, Walgreens, Lowe's, Walt Disney World, Best Buy, and virtually every other major retail chain in Florida, has long lobbied to keep the theft-threshold as low as it is — despite the fact shoplifting rates haven't increased in the 48 other states where the felony minimum is higher.

And now, with two different bills filed for the 2019 legislative session to raise the threshold, the Federation has told New Times it will lobby against them. One of the bills would raise the level to $1,000, the other to $1,500. While many other states have similar felony minimums — some have set thresholds as high as $2,500 — a lobbyist with the group, James Miller, said via email last week that the federation believes these numbers are too high.

"We have concerns about the felony threshold bill you mentioned, specifically that the bill proposes to increase the threshold by an astonishing 500 percent," he wrote.

4. Making sure Florida cities continue using Styrofoam. Via the News Service of Florida:
An appeals court Wednesday sided with the Florida Retail Federation and upheld the constitutionality of state laws which prevent Styrofoam bans.

A three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal overturned a ruling by a Miami-Dade County circuit judge who found three state laws unconstitutional. The new ruling says state law can and does prevent Coral Gables from enacting a Styrofoam ban.

The case focused heavily on a wide-ranging Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services bill that state lawmakers passed in March 2016. The bill barred local governments from regulating food-related polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam, containers and made that prohibition retroactive to any local ordinances passed after Jan. 1, 2016.

Coral Gables approved a Styrofoam-ban ordinance in February 2016, and the retail federation and Super Progreso, Inc., later filed the lawsuit challenging its legality. Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Jorge Cueto ruled that the 2016 state law —- and two earlier state laws dealing with regulation of packaging —- were unconstitutional and backed the Coral Gables ordinance.
5. Giving a ton of money to "proud NRA sellout" Adam Putnam. Via the Orlando Weekly:
A lobbying group that receives almost all of its funding from Publix is actively supporting self-described "proud NRA sellout" and Florida governor candidate Adam Putnam.

Just six days after Publix announced they would suspend political donations, the right-wing trade group Florida Retail Federation (FRF), which is heavily funded by the Lakeland-based grocery chain, donated $100,000 to Adam Putnam's Florida Grown political action committee.

Last month, nationwide protests led by Parkland school shooting survivor and outspoken NRA critic David Hogg broke out after a report from the Tampa Bay Times showed that Publix gave an unprecedented $670,000 to Putnam over the course of three years.

Publix responded by saying they would suspend all political donations on May 25.

According to public records, the FRF gave $100,000 to Florida Grown on May 31, less than a week later. Though a spokesperson for Publix told Orlando Weekly that the company hasn't given any political contributions since May 23, almost all of the money the FRF currently has on hand is from the popular Florida grocery chain.
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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.