TALLAHASSEE — Wage theft laws meant to help workers get paid what they are owed, rules meant to curb pollution and protections for LGBT Floridians could be on the chopping block this year if some Republicans in the Florida House get their way.
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Lawmakers are pushing a bill (HB 17) that would prohibit cities, counties and other arms of local government from passing any regulations on businesses unless they have been given specific permission from the state Legislature. The same proposal would repeal existing rules governing businesses in 2020.
The stated goal: eliminating confusion for people trying to start a business in multiple cities or counties.
"Imagine being someone who wants to try to build their business and doesn't want to hire lawyers and doesn't want to hire lobbyists," said Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay. "The intention of this bill is to try to make it easier for those folks to do that."
But local elected officials, Republican and Democrat alike, see it as an attack that would limit their power and harm their residents.
"Why don't they just abolish local government?" said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat. "This is by a group of allegedly conservative people who during campaigns will say less government is better and the government closest to the people governs best, and that's local government."
Officials in Tampa Bay and South Florida worry popular programs and ordinances catered to their communities could go by the wayside, particularly in areas where the state has been slow to change.
"This is a horrible, very horrible bill," said Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, a Republican. "The Legislature is overreaching and they don't quite understand the consequences for the quality of life and order in a city."
The legislation cleared its first House subcommittee Wednesday on a 9-6 vote. Fifty people came to Tallahassee and filed requests to speak about the proposal, but public comment was shortened due to time constraints.
Among the regulations that could be removed if HB 17 becomes law:
• Human rights ordinances that make it illegal to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in hiring and housing. While the Legislature has refused to enact such protections over the last decade, 30 cities and 12 counties have passed them locally, including Hillsborough and Pinellas.
• Anti-wage theft ordinances that fight companies whose employees complain of being paid less than they were owed.
• Local minimum wage laws that exceed the state's $8.10 per hour standard, such as a Miami Beach living wage policy that will raise hourly pay to $13.31 by 2021 and which is currently caught up in the courts.
• Environmental protections meant to limit air and water pollution, particularly in coastal communities under threat by sea level rise.
• Noise ordinances, bar closing times and prohibitions of strip clubs in particular communities.
"Do my constituents want the state to say when to open bar hours, how to set noise regulations, where to put topless bars, how many signs can proliferate our roadways and neighborhoods, how to landscape a business location, where to put a cell tower?" St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice said. "I hardly think so."
Bill supporters say the move is "philosophical" and intended to repeal regulations they view as extraneous and "job-killing." Currently, the only way to stop local governments from passing regulations is to file a lawsuit or convince the Legislature to override a specific kind of ordinance, a process that can take years of lobbying efforts in Tallahassee.
"On a daily basis, our members are faced with an ever-growing myriad of local regulations that makes it difficult for them to do business," said Brewster Bevis, lobbyist for the business group Associated Industries of Florida. "This bill will make it easier to open a business in Florida. It makes it easier to run a business in Florida. And it makes it easier to grow a business in our state."
Fine said he thinks the legislation has been misinterpreted and become subject to "a fair amount of hysteria." What's more, he said, he does not want to limit local governments' zoning authority to decide where businesses such as bars, strip clubs and marijuana dispensaries can open.
But it may not be that simple, said Rep. Shawn Harrison, a former Tampa City Council member and the lone Republican to break from the party and oppose the bill. The state should trust local government to do the things they do best and only step in when local officials are out-of-line, he said.
"Just because we have a state law that says local governments can regulate zoning, I think that doesn't define what zoning is," Harrison said. "So you're going to potentially have all of these businesses that we don't necessarily want popping up on every corner saying, 'No, no, this isn't zoning you're doing.' "
Similar legislation has not been filed in the Florida Senate, though Fine said he expects a bill to be released soon. Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has not taken a position on the issue of local preemption, making it uncertain what chance this legislation has in that chamber.
Contact Michael Auslen at email@example.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.
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