House committee bids bon voyage to Key West voters’ cruise ship limits
Royal Caribbean Image via AP.

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Seaport legislation would preempt the will of Key West voters.

A vote blurring party lines in the Senate Transportation committee ultimately said home rule does not extend to certain seaport regulations.

The bill’s (SB 426) sponsor, Bradenton Rep. Jim Boyd, contended streamlining certain seaport regulations by preempting local laws and leaving those regulations to the state and federal level is good for commerce.

“The economic impact of these ports far extends beyond local jurisdictions,” Boyd said.

During the meeting, Boyd offered an amendment — which passed — to narrow the original bill. Now the legislation would only affect passenger ships at four of Florida’s 15 deep-water seaports, including Pensacola, Panama City, St. Petersburg and Key West. Boyd said Key West is the only city that currently docks large passenger ships.

“We’re trying to preserve the right of ports to operate in the way they see fit, and we’re not trying to impede their ability to do that in any way. We’ve refined it and refined it,” Boyd said.

But the bill is still a direct counter to a referendum passed by Key West citizens to limit cruise ships in their town.

In November, voters in Key West amended the city’s charter to block large cruise ships from docking. Around two-thirds of Key West voters voted to limit the capacity of cruise ships that can dock at the tourist destination’s port, to limit the number of passengers who can disembark and to prioritize cruise lines with the best health records. Support for the measures came after headlines blared the plight of COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships.

“It may sound crazy, but let’s say a group got together in the Jacksonville area and decided that all they wanted was green energy, and they didn’t want gas-powered cars anymore,” Boyd said. “So, guess what happens to the Jacksonville port? To my knowledge BMW, Toyota, I believe there may be others there, that’s their main port of entry for the United States, or at least for the Southeast United States. So, it has broad economic implications on our state.”

The bill voids any previous provisions passed by local governments regulating seaports.

A representative from Key West opposed the legislation.

“I don’t think there’s a carve-out or a movement that can take care of it from our standpoint. The city has to oppose anything that infringes upon nearly 200 years of local control of our port. We’d like to continue to have local control, and we’re here to support our voter’s voice from this past election,” Justin Salzberg said.

Josh Aubuchon, representing Florida Ports for Economic Independence, told the Senate committee the proposal is intended to simply overturn an election.

“Unlike other local regulations that burden private property, that say you can’t paint your building this color or you can’t do this, you can’t do that with your own private property, these referenda are all about the city-owned port,” Aubuchon said. “So, basically, we’re telling the folks down in Key West, who voted for these referenda, they knew what they were voting on, that while they can elect their representatives there, that they can’t control their own port that they own.”

Florida Ports Council President & CEO Doug Wheeler said the law could interfere with new cruise ship port activity.

“We remain concerned the bill negatively impacts four municipal ports, restricting their ability to recruit new cruise ship port activity that would generate additional economic opportunities,” Wheeler said.

News outlets report the port in Panama City is currently recruiting a large cruise line.

Other detractors of the legislation said the economic argument doesn’t hold water because Key West’s economy is doing fine.

“The Key’s economy is doing great. Currently, the sales and bed taxes are higher than they were before the pandemic,” a representative for the Florida Ports for Economic Independence said.

Supporters disagree.

Caribe Nautical Services Chairman John Wells, a leading opponent of the Key West vote, has said the city’s referendum hurts the cruise industry. Of 287 reservations in place for 2022 cruises, only 18 ships would meet the size criteria.

Support for the bill follows a growing trend over the last few years of the Legislature passing laws preempting local regulations. A report from nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute Integrity Florida highlights the effects of past and current legislation broadening the state’s ability to override the home rule authority of local governments, ultimately labeling preemption laws as “impeding local ability to respond to local challenges”.

And while other preemption legislation this Session neatly parted along party lines, with Republicans supporting and Democrats opposing, this Senate bill was different.

The final vote was 6-2.

Key West Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez sided with her constituents and voted against the bill. Joining her was Democratic Sen. Lori Berman.

But Sen. Randolph Bracy and Sen. Shevrin Jones, both Democrats, voted to support the bill.

“Yesterday, I was in the same position that you are in right now with a bill that you came in and you supported,” Jones said. “So, I’m going to return that favor to you, with the understanding that you listen to the stakeholders.”

All other supporters of the bill were Republicans.

The Senate bill still has two more committee stops. The next one is Community Affairs.

A companion House bill (HB 267) sits in Local Administration & Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, its second of three committee stops.

___

The News Service of Florida contributed to this post. Republished with permission.

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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