On Friday, May 5, the Florida Legislature dropped its white hanky, declared sine die and partied in Tallahassee like sixth graders on the last day of school. Shenanigans abounded as these good, back-slapping folks congratulated themselves on a most successful assault on Florida’s historic home rule.
I suspect they nodded humbly and smiled knowingly when Gov. Ron DeSantis thanked them for allowing him to keep his day job while he continues his quest for a presidential nomination. The legislature overwhelmingly approved exempting the governor from a Florida law that requires elected officials resign their jobs if they’re running for something else.
(Note for those who aren’t political junkies: Sine die is the last official day of the Florida Legislature. The Latin phrase means the meeting has been adjourned for a period of time with no fixed end. It’s just a fun way of kicking off the party. In case you ever need to say it: Latin scholars pronounce the term “see-nay de-ay,” but most regular folks would say “sigh-neh dye.” And, if you want to hear a whole bunch of folks saying it, check this YouTube video. )
Florida’s Legislature has been eroding home rule for decades. Democrats weren’t averse to limiting home rule and Republicans have raised anti-home rule to an art form. The 2023 legislative session was a case in point.
Almost 60 bills intended to consolidate state control and pull governing power from city and county commissions were introduced this session. When the state specifically overrules local control, it’s called preemption. State law preempts local law.
Some were scarily frivolous, like the one forcing public buildings and schools to remove the Pride rainbow and Black Lives Matter flags. House Bill 1011 and Senate Bill 668, which happily died timely deaths in committee, said public buildings could fly only the Florida and U.S. flags and the POW-MIA and Firefighter Memorial flags.
Now, I’ll admit I sometimes wonder how many flags a pole can hold or at what point flag posters on walls get a tad overdone. I don’t want my state legislators to make that decision. Let schools and cities decide. The closer to home a decision is made, the more likely it is to represent the community’s values and culture.
Home rule: Four bills that chip away at local control
I spent an unspeakable amount of time tracking four bills that directly affect Key West and Monroe County. I admit it’s an addiction, this bookmarking of LegiScan and assorted Florida House and Senate bill trackers. Since a few hours in Tallahassee is like a year in Key West, there’s every chance something could happen with these four bills before sine die. The two state legislators who represent us — Jim Mooney in the House and Ana Maria Rodriguez in the Senate — vote almost exclusively as partisan Republicans, so there’s little help from them on the home rule front.
Resiliency and Safe Structures Act: Mary, Joseph and the Wee Donkey. When this was introduced, S1346 would have allowed developers to demolish historic districts and build high-rise, waterfront condos around the edges and middle of Key West. Think La Concha on steroids or Key West looks like Marco Island. And no one — no one — in local government could do a thing about it. Public hearings were prohibited. That’s not hyperbole. The final legislation was almost ready for DeSantis’ signature before its sponsors decided on the penultimate day of the session to let it die until next year. But before it died, sponsors added a handful of exemptions that might have protected Key West. The exemption added hastily last week protects locations in “an area of critical state concern.” Key West gained that designation in 1984 and the county in 1974. But, make no mistake, the legislation can be devastating to other communities.
Protection of Children: Contrary to its title, this bill, which awaits DeSantis’ signature, has nothing to do with children and everything to do with doing away with drag shows, Pride parades, Fantasy Fest, Woman Fest and anything else of similar stripe that might offend Karens and Kens. It forbids local governments from issuing parade permits for events, like Fantasy Fest or Pride, that might be inappropriate for children. We’ll see how this plays out in Key West. One Florida town has already canceled its Pride parade.
Property Owners Right to Install, Display and Store Items: Some mouthful, huh? This one, which awaits DeSantis’ signature, sounds good, right? Here’s the catch. It takes away the rights of Home Owner Associations to decide how many flags a homeowner can fly, whether there’s a flag pole and solidified where said owner can store stuff like boats if visible to the neighbors. I know HOAs can go crazy with petty rules, but let’s have that fight with the HOA board and its residents. It’s Florida, though, so the legislature has decided residents of associations can fly as many flags as they want on Patriots Day. (For the unaware, Patriots Day is Sept. 11. I had to look it up.)
An Act Relating to Local Ordinances: This is another Wee Donkey sleeper bill. It was fast-tracked this week, may or may not make it to DeSantis and he vetoed a similar bill last year. You gotta read between the lines to understand this one means any local business can sue local governments over ordinances, proposed or existing, that said owner thinks might be deleterious to their making money — and the local government has to immediately halt implementation until a judge decides. If this becomes law, look for dozens of lawsuits across the Keys against city and county ordinances ranging from use of sidewalks and parking to life-safety laws and ADA requirements.
Hey, I cheer when preemption gives me what I want. Admit it, you do, too. But every time Tallahassee decides what’s good for Monroe County and Key West, we are less the Keys and more the mainland. And, that’s simply not a good thing.