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Port of Pensacola to Legislature: We'll Make Our Own Decisions

City of Pensacola

An effort to overturn a 2020 vote in Key West that limited cruise-ship operations is ready to go before the full Senate.

The Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday approved Senate Bill 426, which would apply to municipal-run ports in Key West, Pensacola, Panama City and St. Petersburg and prohibit past and future local referendums that affect cruise-ship operations.

Democrats, including Senator Gary Farmer, criticize the proposal because it would preempt the local law.

“It’s really another level of preemption when we are going against a vote that was put to a referendum,” contended Farmer.

Of the municipal-run ports, only Key West has cruise ship operations, though negotiations are underway to bring cruise ships to Panama City. Senator Jim Boyd is the bill sponsor.

“There is no scientifically based study that I’ve seen,” said Boyd, “that is true science that says the reefs are being destroyed.”

“Of all the legislation that’s been brought forward affecting ports, this is the first time I’ve felt so strongly about a proposed bill that I’ve been compelled to come here in person and give you my thoughts,” said Port of Pensacola Director Amy Miller in opposition to SB 426, appearing before a legislative committee last month.

Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
Amy Miller, Director, Port of Pensacola.

“As filed, this bill – as amended – circumvents the ability of municipal seaport boards to restrict and regulate commerce at their ports,” Miller told lawmakers.

The bill, she contends, replaces local port decisions with those made in landlocked Tallahassee.

“As I read it, I as the port director; my mayor as the CEO of the city of Pensacola, and my city council as the port’s governing body, would no longer have the authority to determine what types of cargo, what volumes of cargo, what sizes of vessels, or what number and types of passenger would make the most sense to our port and our local community.”

Indications are the measure aims to reverse decisions made by Key West voters to limit the size of cruise ships allowed there. Miller says there are two other – and perhaps more legal – ways to accomplish that.

“Either through the courts, or through targeted legislation addressing that singular issue – rather than through sweeping legislation that negatively impacts and unnecessarily hamstrings two other, unrelated, jurisdictions that have operated successful business models without issues for decades,” said Miller. “And in Pensacola’s case, for nearly 100 years.”

“Local decisions should be made here locally, based on those conditions of what we want,” said Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson.

“When Amy comes to a certain determination of what’s best for the port and we work together,” said the mayor. “That’s what we do here; we set those parameters on what’s best for our community. We should have the ability to do that and the state shouldn’t have the ability to tell us not to.”

The House version of the bill has drawn support from two subcommittees and needs approval from the Commerce Committee before it could go to the full House.