In 2018, the City of Miami finally, after years and years of bellyaching and protest from residents, launched a pilot project to force developers in one tiny downtown neighborhood to include affordable-housing units in every building they construct henceforth. The move was a long time coming — critics for decades had warned that the city was becoming virtually unlivable for working-class residents and that housing stock for typical wage earners was pitifully low. The city's class of rich real-estate developers was, naturally, livid and tried to fight the move.
But after that measure passed, a funny thing happened: The Republican-dominated Florida Legislature considered a bill to ban cities from enacting those kinds of housing regulations.
The measure failed, but it was indicative of what a nonpartisan watchdog group said yesterday is a massive problem across Florida: that state lawmakers — at the behest of rich donors, businesses, and lobbyists — have been banning local governments from enacting their own laws. The nonprofit Integrity Florida said in a 43-page report that big-business interests, including the National Rifle Association, Florida Chamber of Commerce, and American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have successfully pushed state lawmakers to ban left-leaning cities and towns from enacting any legislation those groups don't like. Integrity Florida is now suggesting that any new preemption laws require a two-thirds majority vote to become law, but that suggestion is unlikely to gain traction in the state Legislature.
"The use of preemption as a strategy by the Florida Legislature has become heavy-handed," Ben Wilcox, Integrity Florida's research director, said yesterday in a media release. "It's like using a sledgehammer to kill a fly, and it's largely driven by the campaign contributions and lobbying of corporate special interests."
As it stands, local municipalities are, for example, banned from enacting their own minimum-wage or gun-control laws — two provisions the report notes were enacted after major pushes from Florida business interests and the NRA, respectively. In 2016, the City of Miami Beach tried to raise its local minimum wage to $13.31 per hour, but the State of Florida teamed up with the business-backed Florida Retail Federation, a powerful group heavily influenced by Publix Super Markets, and sued the city. A judge then said Miami Beach's efforts were illegal. Perhaps most notable, in 2019 the Florida Legislature enacted legislation banning any city in the state from acting as a so-called sanctuary city by refusing to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The phenomenon is neither new nor unique to Florida. As state legislatures have become redder and more conservative in recent years, numerous state houses have enacted laws designed to strip away the lawmaking power of city governments. In a dark and revealing twist, the push has come from so-called small-government Republicans. In December, Washington Monthly warned that red states are "steamrolling blue cities" across America using state-level preemption laws. In the Sunshine State, reporters for years have been warning the public about the Republican-dominated Legislature's increased power grabs.
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Integrity Florida noted yesterday that preemption laws used to serve a basic purpose: to simply ensure the state adopted uniform standards for regulations or industries statewide. But now, watchdogs say state Republicans are using those same laws to stamp out any local regulations that big businesses and wealthy donors dislike. Integrity Florida said that, between 2017 and 2019, state lawmakers proposed 119 preemption bills. The state passed 11.
The bills have been transparently partisan. Integrity Florida notes that many have attempted to bar local cities from passing small-scale environmental regulations, such as bans on plastic bags or straws. The report quotes multiple lawmakers admitting they're filing bills to undercut left-leaning cities. Integrity Florida noted Flagler County state Rep. Paul Renner, who is in line to become speaker of the Florida House, told WNZF-AM in 2017 that Republicans are filing bills to combat "rogue," left-leaning cities:
Part of this, to be real blunt about it, what you're seeing and this is part of a larger conversation [we] could have is the concentration of support for a more center-left or leftwing viewpoint, and this is again not Flagler County, but our major cities, San Francisco, New York. So part of the fight, part of the sub-context of this whole discussion, is the reason we think they're going rogue is because it's Bernie Sanders in charge of your local city government...
And so states are stepping in to say, "Look, we're not going to let you destroy all the good work that we're doing and all the economic growth we're creating in the state for people by trying to ban or shut down particular industries that you don't like."
The report also faults one major player in particular: ALEC, the national pro-business conservative group that writes model legislation for lawmakers around the country. ALEC — which has ties to oil companies, telecommunications giants, and the Koch brothers — is essentially a Republican "bill factory" that cranks out bill text for lawmakers so they don't need to think too hard. Integrity Florida noted that in 2015, Jon Russell, director of ALEC's American City County Exchange program, wrote a piece claiming small towns "have become victims of far-left organizations manipulating the public and local officials to create policies that hurt economic development and individual freedom." States, he argued, had to step in to stop those pesky small governments from doing what they pleased.