According to a state representative recently, our local cities are rife with socialism, as is support for home rule. Some of us wonder if the Republican Party in Tallahassee would be recognizable to conservative thinkers such William F. Buckley and George Will. In fact, the majority of city officials here in Pinellas are Republicans, they support home rule, and are as miffed as Buckley would be at that comment and his party’s attack of home rule.
What happened to the oft-quoted conservative tenet that “the government closest to the people serves the people best”?
What is “home rule” and “state preemption?”
Home rule was part of the state’s 1968 constitutional revision passed by the people: “Municipalities shall have governmental, corporate and proprietary powers to enable them to conduct municipal government, perform municipal functions and render municipal services, and may exercise power for municipal purposes except as otherwise provided by law.” (Article VIII, Section 2(b)).
This session the Florida League of Cities is tracking 25 bills that aim to curtail this constitutional power by preempting local governments and another 11 that aim to impose mandates, some unfunded, on local cities. While these bills run the gamut, they have one quality in common: They go to the extreme.
For example, an energy bill would keep cities from passing even non-binding resolutions related to clean or renewable energy (HB919). A voter protection bill would prohibit counties from allowing voters to deposit their ballots in secure ballot drop boxes (SB90). A third limits impact fee increases for new developments, but does so in a way that prevents cities from using these fees to equip firefighters, EMS and police with the equipment and vehicles they need to for an increasing population caused by new development (HB 337). Another prohibits cities from upholding design and aesthetic ordinances (HB55). And if the state House has its way, any city choosing to change its solid waste contract will now have a hefty state-ordered penalty for switching garbage companies (HB31).
Some of these are a response to a local government behaving badly. In others, it’s corporate industry lobbying for preemption because it’s easier to deal with the state than to go to every county. Others appear to be sweetheart deals for legislators’ personal businesses. Some preemptions truly make sense – our aquifers do not know municipal boundaries, and continuity for statewide infrastructure is common sense – but even this is taken to the extreme.
Most often the best solution needs to be crafted with a scalpel, not a mallet. Unfortunately, with the contempt expressed for our cities and the short-lived, fast-paced sessions in Florida, these nuanced solutions are not likely to come from our state legislators. Instead we get state overreach that weakens our cities.
There are solutions to this madness. The first begins at the ballot box – elect people who do not want to destroy home rule. The second are policy solutions to rein in Tallahassee. Integrity Florida – a nonpartisan research institute and watchdog for public corruption – suggests some changes that are common in other arenas:
• Require two-thirds or super-majority vote for passage of legislation preempting local government authority (similar to what is required for local unfunded mandates).
• Establish by rule or law a single-subject requirement for preemption legislation.
• Establish a sunset review provision for preemptions that automatically repeals a preemption on a certain date unless the legislature affirmatively acts to renew it.
These policy suggestions are not likely to get off the ground anytime soon. But, maybe it’s time we went on the offensive and advocated for protections to individual city character and local autonomy.
As we head into the second half of session, I’ll be fighting with others across the state against one-size-fits-all policies that yield cookie-cutter cities and dysfunctional policies. After all, a state the size of Florida demands local solutions, and who best to provide those than those closest and most accessible to the people – our local elected officials?
Find contacts and more for your local representatives at pinellascounty.org/delegation.
Jennifer Webb is a former member of the Florida State House, District 69, a founding partner of Omni Public, and an applied anthropologist. She lives in Gulfport with her wife, Cynthia, and their adopted pup, Bailey.