Florida Republicans are trampling on the wishes of locals in a rush to consolidate power

Opinion by Lizette Alvarez, Washington Post Contributing columnist, May 24, 2021

When fighting Big Government, Republicans traditionally extol the virtue of going local: Let people decide what works best for their own communities. In Florida, where Latino-rich Miami sits a universe away from Pensacola’s Southern drawl, the argument often made sense.

But that was yesterday. Today’s Florida Republican leaders — Gov. Ron DeSantis and the GOP-dominated legislature — seem focused on one goal: centralizing power in the state capital, Tallahassee, and shoving Florida from purple to red by fiat.

If that means trampling on the wishes of local citizens and local governments, well, what’s a little conservative heresy when overall power is at stake? Seizing control from the state’s most urban cities and counties, which bounce from Republican to Democrat and back again, is as easy these days as spotting a mosquito at sundown.

The war began a decade ago, waged from the legislature and governor’s mansion, but it has turned particularly ferocious this year, as Republicans everywhere seem desperate to counter President Biden. But the scramble is particularly intense in Florida, and is especially anti-local, as Republicans seek to curry favor with Florida’s Trump-lovers.

Crippling renewable energy policies — check. Handing developers even more power — check. Seizing control during health emergencies — check. Interfering in local police budgets — check. Hampering Floridians’ ability to launch ballot initiatives — check.

“It feels like there’s been an all-out assault on home rule, in particular this year,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman (D) told radio station WUSF on May 10. “I spent six years in Tallahassee, and there was always preemptions. But I’ve never seen a year quite like this one, where they were as far-reaching and as empowering for the legislature, and de-powering for cities.”

The Republicans’ most outlandish power play may be one involving Key West, where Margaritaville tourist antics bump up against the workaday life of Conchs, as local residents in the city of about 25,000 are known.

Frustrated with the island’s relentless pre-pandemic cruise-ship traffic, and concerned about environmental damage to nearby reefs, Key West’s Conchs voted last fall — with 60 percent approval — to bar ships that carry more than 1,300 passengers from docking at the port (some carry as many as 4,000 passengers and crew). The measure capped the number of cruise passengers who flood into town at 1,500 daily (more than a million arrived annually before the Covid shutdown).

Republicans in Tallahassee were furious. So was a big-money hotel operator, Mark Walsh. He happens to own the Key West pier, which relies on profit-boosting cruise traffic. Walsh fiercely opposed the citizen initiative. As it turns out, he also donated $995,000 to the Friends of Ron DeSantis political action committee through 11 different companies, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

An initial Republican effort to invalidate the Key West measure stalled last month, so Democrats were gob smacked in late April, as the legislative clock ticked down, when an amendment to a transportation bill popped up. “Any local ballot initiative or referendum may not restrict maritime commerce” at any of Florida’s 15 deep-water ports, it said.

By thoughtfully attaching the amendment to the larger transportation bill, Republicans gave DeSantis some cover as he mulls signing it.

Local governments are being pummeled in other ways, including on clean-energy policies. One bill would stop them from curbing fracking or banning natural gas in new construction. Another would make it impossible to require that gas stations set up electric-vehicle charging stations.

Florida lawmakers historically have been cozy with land-gobbling developers. Now the legislature wants to limit how much and how often developers must pay for things such as roads and schools. The bill, awaiting DeSantis’s signature, would increase the burden on taxpayers — something Republicans oppose generally, but apparently not when Florida business interests are at stake.

The legislature and governor have also meddled with local control in health emergencies. Let’s be clear: Without mask mandates, shutdowns and strict social distancing policies enacted by South Florida’s local governments — defying the governor’s laissez-faire approach — the state almost certainly would have been a bigger Covid casualty, and DeSantis wouldn’t have morphed into a national GOP darling. Local governments in big cities helped save Florida. So of course Republicans have now moved to make it easier to overrule local mandates such as these.

The list goes on: Local police budgets can now be overridden, if appealed. The legislature also found a new way to quash ideas that it (or possibly its lobbyists) dislike, placing a $3,000 limit on donations to political committees that sponsor or oppose ballot amendments. That will make it harder to get these measures on the ballot, a process that requires nearly 900,000 signatures.

Last year, Florida voters approved an initiative to gradually raise the minimum wage to $15. In 2018, they opted to give many former felons the right to vote and required casinos to come to them, the voters, for approval to open. Guess who hated those measures?

 Image Credits: Surrounded by state lawmakers, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks at the state Capitol in Tallahassee on April 30. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)