Legislature approves port preemption bill to undercut Key West cruise limits

Last minute maneuvers bring preemption into harbor

A day after the issue appeared dead, Florida lawmakers late Wednesday approved a measure aimed at overturning a 2020 vote by Key West residents restricting cruise ship operations.

The Senate attached the Key West issue to a broad transportation bill (SB 1194), which then passed the Senate and the House. It will now go to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Key West voters in November approved limiting the size of ships and the number of passengers who can visit the city daily. The Senate passed a stand-alone bill (SB 426) aimed at overturning the vote, but it was not brought up on the House floor and appeared Tuesday to have died.

But Sen. Ed Hooper, a Clearwater Republican who sponsored the transportation bill, and Sen. Jim Boyd, a Bradenton Repubican who sponsored the stand-alone measure, said the port amendment tacked on to the broader bill Wednesday was a compromise with the House.

“This is week nine (of the legislative session), and the Senate and the House sometimes reach compromise language, that this could be one of those that nobody likes and maybe that’s the right way to end it,” Hooper said.

But Rep. Jim Mooney, an Islamorada Republican who represents the Keys, argued against the amendment before the bill passed the House in a 75-40 vote. Mooney said cruise ships cause water turbidity that is bad for fishing and the ecosystem.

“It is my job to protect the ecosystem in the Florida Keys, and that’s what I am going to do,” he said.

The bill, which passed the Senate in a 21-17 vote, would apply to all 15 seaports in the state. It would prohibit local ballot initiatives that restrict maritime commerce involving vessel sizes, points of origin and even environmental and health records of the ship or company.

“If you have a port in your district, know that the people in your district, the voters, are not going to be able to have their voices heard on some of these issues,” Sen. Lori Berman said.

On Monday, the Miami Herald reported that 11 companies owned by Mark Walsh, who owns the company running the Pier B cruise ship dock behind Margaritaville Key West Resort and Marina, have donated nearly $1 million to the Friends of Ron DeSantis political committee backing the governor’s re-election effort.

Sen. Jason Pizzo said the state should allow the Key West issue to be handled in court, where a property owner could argue the local vote involved a “taking” of business interests.

“They have a business, that they have a reliance, that they have a long-term contract on that business entity and that the city is doing something that amounts to taking of property and a reduction,” Pizzo said.

The Florida Ports Council, which opposed the earlier legislation, viewed the amendment as narrowing the preemption of local seaport operations, with lawmakers taking “steps to help ensure Florida’s seaports remain a major economic driver.”

“With thousands of cruise-related employees still sidelined, and cruise ships still unable to sail, it’s vital that local seaports are not further restricted in their ability to conduct business and create economic development opportunities,” council Vice President of Governmental Affairs Michael Rubin said in a prepared statement.

Material from the News Service of Florida was used in this post.

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected].


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