Home rule challenge on emergency orders clears first committee
Image via Florida Today.

mask protest
Local governments took the lead on COVID-19, but under this bill, they'd be limited.

A party line vote in the House Pandemics and Public Emergencies Committee is the closest answer yet on the fate of a bill (HB 945) preempting emergency powers of local governments.

The legislation takes the wind out of local governments’ emergency powers by placing a sunset provision on emergency orders of seven days with the option to extend after that. It would also create a time frame for “significant emergency orders,” a new term created by the bill, that would expire after 30 days. Under that scenario, local governments would have the option to extend the order once for 60 days but only through a referendum approved by a majority of the city or county’s electorate.

As defined by the bill, “significant emergency orders” would include anything that limits the right of residents to attend religious services, speak freely, assemble, work, travel, acquire personal property, purchase or bear firearms, or that would interfere with their Fourth Amendment right to not be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Rommel, said the legislation will keep local governments from going too far with emergency orders.

“I think individuals know how to make the best choice to protect themselves and to protect their own liberty,” Rommel said.

In his State of the State address, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he would “lend his support” for bills reforming the emergency powers of local government. Though, the Senate does not seem as willing to do so. As of Tuesday afternoon, the bill had no Senate companion.

The Florida Association of Counties opposes the bill.

“Rather than fighting emergencies, we’re afraid with this legislation, we might end up fighting court battles,” Tonnette Graham, a representative for the group, said. “This is a fundamental shift in how we currently deal with and respond to emergencies on the local level. This will ultimately lead us to not being able to protect what is paramount — that’s the life and property of our citizens.”

Democrats say the bill attacks home rule and limits the ability of county and municipal governments to enact emergency orders, which helped curb the pandemic.

“I think it paints a very incomplete picture to say now that Florida’s success in terms of turning the corner with the COVID-19 pandemic is solely based on decisions that were made at the state level. We know that they were not. We had mayors and county commissions and city councils who did the hard work and figured out how to beat [this],” Rep. Fentrice Driskell said.

After a series of questions by Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, Rommel would not directly say whether the bill would include mask mandates, something that has become a politically divisive issue.

“We have proud anti-maskers running around this Capitol all day long. I’m confused why we can’t get clarity on a central issue as it relates to emergency powers at the local level. So, my default is, I will assume that this bill does intend to preempt local mask mandates,” Smith said.

Rep. Cord Byrd voted in favor of the bill.

“It accomplishes one simple thing, and that is to ensure constitutional liberties,” said Byrd.

The vote was 12-6, along party lines. The bill now advances to the Local Administration and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee.

Haley Brown

Haley Brown covers state government for FloridaPolitics.com. Previously, Haley covered the West Virginia Legislature and anchored weekend newscasts for WVVA in Bluefield, W.Va. Haley is a Florida native and a graduate of the University of Florida. You can reach her at [email protected].


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