A bill prohibiting local governments from writing their own seaport restrictions is on its way to the Senate floor after hitting turbulent waters in committee.
The controversial bill (SB 426), filed by Bradenton Republican Sen. Jim Boyd, would prohibit local ballot initiatives from restricting seaport activity and preempting seaport restrictions. On Wednesday, the Senate Rules Committee approved the bill for the full Senate’s consideration.
Voters in Key West in November 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 last year, with the hope of preserving coral reefs and the environment some say are damaged by large ships.
“They came out in droves,” Key West Mayor Teri Johnston told the committee. “They came out in record numbers to vote on these three referendum agenda items, and they were very, very clear. We heard their voices.”
The bill has been an evolving project. Boyd noted it has been amended at all three of its committee stops, including on Wednesday. The latest amendment limited the bill’s focus from municipal ports to any port near an area of “critical state concern.” All the bill’s “refinements” have come after listening to concerns from stakeholders, the Senator added.
Several of the proposal’s opponents, mostly residents of Key West and the rest of the Keys, woke up at 3 a.m. to catch a plane to Tallahassee. But the fishermen, captains and local elected officials who came to oppose the bill found their testimony limited to one or two minutes each, sometimes forcefully cut.
More than 20 speakers spoke on the measure, clogging the committee room. Senators on the panel heard public testimony on the bill for about an hour, time lawmakers hoped to use to consider other controversial measures like a bill to rewrite state election law.
Rules Committee Chair Kathleen Passidomo acknowledged that those who traveled to speak were very passionate about the issue. But that didn’t allay the public’s frustrations with the limited period for testimony.
“I’m supposed to be working and I had to travel up here,” fishing guide Ian Slater said.
Former Key West City Commissioner Tony Yaniz, who was elected in 2012 and served for four years, noted each city is different. He called the bill a cautionary tale and warned it would stomp out democracy and home rule.
“Today it’s Key West. Tomorrow, this may come right back and bite you in the a**,” Yaniz said.
Others claimed lawmakers were passing a bill written by lobbyists who haven’t spent much time in Key West.
“Why am I now here? What are you guys up to? Because it seems like I’m here wading around in a swamp of special interests of cruise ship companies, companies who register offshore to evade taxes and companies who are led by CEOs that have no problem killing the reef with their ships,” said biologist and captain Billy Litmer.
Both sides of the debate agreed the economy is doing better in Key West since the city reopened, with Boyd calling it the “Caribbean of the United States” as many Caribbean islands closed to Americans during the pandemic. However, supporters rejected recent studies, arguing they were rushed to influence the debate around cruise ships.
Those opposing the bill said the water has been clearer during the pandemic and through the no-sail order from the federal government. But Warren Husband, general counsel for the Florida Harbor Pilots Association, said cruise ships don’t kick up enough water to explain increased turbidity in the water that is killing sensitive coral.
“There is no scientifically based study that I’ve seen that’s true science that suggests the reefs are being destroyed,” Boyd added.
Democrats sided with the residents of Key West, including Ocoee Sen. Randolph Bracy.
“I voted for this in committee before when I saw it, but the people have made a case to not support this,” he said.
Many who spoke contended they were working class residents. However, Boyd contended hard-working residents whose livelihoods depend on tourism couldn’t afford to travel to Tallahassee for the meeting.
“There’s two sides to this,” Boyd said. “You heard a lot of passionate testimony today from the side that could get up here, but the side that couldn’t get up here that’s down there struggling to make ends meet are who you didn’t hear from.”
The Key West residents, led by author and poet Arlo Haskell, took to the Governor’s Mansion after the committee to make their case to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“We’re calling on Governor DeSantis to step in and stop this bill now, veto this bill when it comes to his desk,” Haskell said. “This is a bad bill that will wreck the reef in the Florida Keys, that will reverse the water quality gains that all of us have seen.”
However, the Governor has been on the side of cruise ships on recent issues, including on a lawsuit Florida filed last week demanding the federal government allow cruise ships to sail again.
The House version of the port preemption measure (HB 267), filed by Republican Rep. Spencer Roach, awaits its final hearing in the House committee process. The North Fort Myers Republican has also called for no stimulus money to go to Key West because of the city’s cruise ship referendums.