Legislation that would make it easier for Florida businesses and individuals to challenge local ordinances cleared its first state Senate test Wednesday, with supporters calling it a needed check on government heavy-handedness and opponents saying the bill goes too far.
The measure, sponsored by Republican Sen. Travis Hutson, would make cities and counties come up with a “business impact statement” on a proposed ordinance and require the suspension of any ordinance when it is challenged by a lawsuit under certain conditions — and if the lawsuit prevails, the government would owe attorney’s fees.
The bill was approved by the Senate Community Affairs Committee after a lengthy hearing that included testimony from opponents including the Florida League of Cities, Florida Association of Counties and the League of Women Voters.
“Why do we even have local government if we’re going to allow individuals and businesses to tie their hands?” said Trish Neely of the League of Women Voters.
Concerns also were raised about the potential costs of the “business impact statement” requirement, particularly for the hundreds of smaller cities and towns that dot Florida’s landscape.
In addition, the bill would change a legal standard — known as the “rational basis review” — in which judges now must simply decide whether an challenged ordinance is part of a legitimate government interest. Instead, the measure would add a list of new factors judges must consider, such as whether the ordinance protects people’s health, welfare, safety and quality of life as well as the economic impact on business.
Supporters include powerful business interests such as the Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. Their backers in the Senate said the measure brings more accountability to local governments when they seek to impose unduly harsh or unreasonable rules.
“They have no investment and they are telling you what you can and cannot do,” said GOP Sen. Dennis Baxley, a funeral director by trade. “This gives businesses a voice to respond to the heavy hand of government that can break them. Business people are not your enemy. They are the backbone of your community.”
Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democrat and an attorney, called the legislation “the preemption bill of all preemption bills,” referring to the frequent practice of Florida lawmakers to override local decision-makers and sometimes voters on numerous subjects. Farmer noted that local governments take important steps such as regulating alcohol sales at bars, overseeing adult entertainment venues, creating affordable housing and even restricting sales from puppy mills.
“These are important ordinances that protect people,” Farmer said. “We should be respectful of the local officials and the people who elect them. We’re going too far with this legislation.”
Hutson, whose family runs a development company, said state lawmakers are “now the last line of defense” when local governments overreach and contended the bill would actually streamline and accelerate challenges to local decisions. He also noted the bill has two more committee stops before it could reach the Senate floor and that changes are possible.
“We’ve got a long ways to go,” Hutson said.
Florida’s regular legislative session that began Tuesday continues until March 11.