A legislative proposal has the potential to increase lawsuits against Florida municipalities
In a proposal drawing heavy fire from local governments, a Senate committee Tuesday approved a measure that could lead to cities and counties facing lawsuits because of decisions that lead to reduced revenue or profits for businesses.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-4 to back the proposal (SB 620), which would allow businesses to sue if local ordinances cause at least 15 percent losses of revenue or profits. The bill would apply to businesses that have been operating for at least three years.
Sponsor Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, said the requirements of at least 15 percent losses and three years in business create a “pretty high threshold.” He said the bill would give the businesses an avenue to recover revenue.
“It’s to give the businesses that may be hard-working and can’t show up at the county council or the county commission that are getting affected what, I think, is severely 15 percent … they’re getting hammered by an ordinance and right now, the government’s just saying, ‘Sorry this is what we’re doing,’” Hutson said.
But Seminole County Commissioner Lee Constantine, a former state senator, said the bill would have a “chilling effect” on the ability of local officials to address concerns of residents and would drive up costs.
“This bill, in essence, takes away our legislative powers --- what we’re voted to do, just like you are, to take care of local problems,” Constantine said to senators.
The proposal came after years of lawmakers considering --- and often passing --- bills to take away decision-making powers from local governments on everything from ride-sharing services to regulation of sunscreen. The so-called “preemption” bills have often been prompted by specific local situations.
With his bill, Hutson said he wants to curb preemption fights in the Legislature and have disputes resolved at the local level. The bill is modeled after a longstanding state law known as the Bert J. Harris Private Property Rights Protection Act, which allows property owners to file lawsuits if government decisions have “inordinately burdened” property use.
The bill drew support Tuesday from groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Retail Federation and Americans for Prosperity-Florida. But it drew opposition from groups such as the Florida Association of Counties, the Florida League of Cities, the Florida AFL-CIO and Sierra Club Florida.
Wakulla County Commissioner Ralph Thomas, president of the Florida Association of Counties, said the measure would force counties to settle lawsuits and pay attorney fees and would “redistribute taxpayer dollars.”
“I think this bill is ripe for causing more problems than solutions,” said Thomas, who described himself as a lifelong small-government Republican.
Sen. Tina Polsky, a Boca Raton Democrat who opposed the bill, said she is concerned about local governments being the “bogeyman for everything” and that they “are not about hampering businesses.”
“Basically, this bill is just a carte blanche ability to sue local government over something that a business doesn’t like,” Polsky said.
Hutson and other supporters said the bill, which is filed for the 2022 legislative session, could undergo changes. But Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the bill is about the “principle of taking” by governments, and people should have recourse in such situations.
“I love the spirit of the bill,” Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, said. “We’re a big state. We have hundreds of jurisdictions that make decisions, and sometimes they get it wrong.”