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A plan letting businesses sue local governments over ordinances moves in the Senate

Photo of the Leon County Courthouse Tallahassee FL
felix mizioznikov/Felix Mizioznikov - stock.adobe.com
©Felix Mizioznikov
Photo of the Leon County Courthouse Tallahassee FL

A plan to allow local ordinances to get automatically blocked if they’re challenged is moving ahead. The proposal goes hand-in-hand with another measure that would let businesses sue local governments over policies that cause a revenue loss of 15 percent or more. local government groups say the bill is better after an amendment filed by its sponsor, but they’re still worried about its impact.

Senate Bill 280 requires cities and counties to do a business impact analysis for proposed local ordinances. But under a change to the plan approved Wednesday, they wouldn’t have to hire accountants or financial consultants. Attorneys fees would also be capped at $50,000.

Still, the bill, and a counterpart allowing businesses to sue local governments, remains a point of concern for groups like the Florida League of Cities, the American Civil Liberties Union, and growth and management organizations. They say the effect of the measures will prevent local governments from making the best decisions for the people they represent. ACLU of Florida lobbyist Rich Templin says the re-written version of the plan is an improvement.

“Obviously you guys have taken some major steps, so…thanks for the hard work," he said, with a caveat:

“If a simple individual can just file suit and then the county or city is compelled not to act on the lawfully passed ordinance that’s giving that individual a veto on what could have been a very popular majority-driven process.”  

Republican Sen. Travis Hutson is the bill sponsor. He’s promising to work with groups like the League of Cities on additional changes to the bill. League Lobbyist Rebecca O’Hara says the proposal is improved from where it began but there are still questions—especially when it comes to that business impact statement:

“Does this mean that the data, the methodology, and the assumptions made by the local government could be challenged? And if the court agrees…would that allow a court to invalidate an ordinance?” O'Hara asked. If so, she said, then the language around not having to hire an accountant or financial consultant is an empty gesture.

“Why do we even have local government if we’re going to let businesses or individuals tie their hands? " said the League of Women Voters of Florida's Trish Neely.

She said the bill represents political double-speak by the legislature’s majority; on one hand, Republicans often criticize the federal government for what they see as overreach. The bill, said Neely, is the state doing the same thing to local governments.

“Disabling our municipalities from exercising their powers under home rule under state and federal law is just not a wise idea.”

Senate Democrats worry challenges to ordinances will come from large corporations with businesses elsewhere---effectively allowing those entities to decide what’s best for a community. And Florida Conservation Voters' Jonathan Webber worries letting businesses sue to block ordinances could hurt efforts on issues like affordable housing and climate change.

"Even something as simple as a new building code to ensure climate-ready new structures could be delayed for years," Webber said.

Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley notes small businesses are often the backbone of cities and counties, pay taxes, and are directly impacted by the policies approved by those cities and counties. Businesses, said Baxley, are people too.

“And yet they’re asked to pay the bill. They’re paying the majority of property taxes. Business is your friend. They’re the people who give your community life and for them to have no recourse and nowhere to go to demonstrate they’re being harmed in some way is, I think, unconscionable.”  

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.