Gov. DeSantis signs bill to overrule Key West cruise ship ban

moody cruise
But City Commissioners may launch the fight anew next week.

Gov. Ron DeSantis deep-sixed a series of referendums passed by Key West voters. tcould have significantly limited cruising capacities there. The Republican Governor signed seaports legislation that makes clear ballot measures won’t set maritime rules in Florida.

Opponents of the new law (SB 1194) say this ensures a vital industry won’t be subject to political whims. Critics say the Governor just landed a blow to home rule and hurt an effort to save coral beds to boot.

Meanwhile, city officials in Key West plan to meet next week, where they well could change the course of ships and start this battle for the seas all over again. The city announced a special meeting will be held Tuesday where City Commissioners will discuss local direction around cruise activity.

Lawmakers this year embarked on the seaports legislation in response to three voter-approved referendums passed last November in Key West. The measures in part prohibit ships with 1,300 or more passengers from docking there and limit visitors from ships to 1,500 cruise passengers per day.

That could have an enormous impact on cruise lines deploying to one of the most popular docks on the Eastern U.S. Seaboard.

Rep. Spencer Roach, a North Fort Myers Republican, said the ballot measures did more than threaten Florida’s hospitality industry. They went beyond the reach of a city charter and tried to regulate maritime commerce.

“I applaud Governor DeSantis for overturning the unconstitutional referendum pushed by an enclave of wealthy landowners seeking to restrict access to 99% of cruise ship passengers deemed undesirable and incompatible with their quest to remake Key West as a new Martha’s Vineyard,” Roach said.

“We want to welcome every Floridian and every American to visit the great state of Florida, regardless of social class. The Governor also saved 13,000 jobs, $90 million in direct revenue to Key West, and $200 million in tax revenue. This is win for freedom and prosperity.”

Additionally, the Florida Ports Council, which represents all of Florida’s sea ports, said the law signed by the Governor provides reasonable boundaries on voter measures without dismantling the power of port authorities.

“The pandemic has proven just how important Florida’s local seaports are to Florida’s economy,” said Michael Rubin, interim president and CEO of the Florida Ports Council.

“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.”

The Legislature at one point this year tried to tailor language to address only Key West’s rules, but fears that would be indefensible in court nearly sunk legislation near the end of Session.

Sen. Jim Boyd, a Bradenton Republican, brought the matter back through an amendment to a transportation bill. The new wording made clear preemption applied to all ports in the state, but only to voter measures, and only those related to maritime commerce.

For critics, the new law, from those last minute political maneuvers to the undoing of the will of voters, reeks of power broking in the state Capitol.

“Republicans cried about so-called ‘election integrity’ all Session long to justify their voter suppression law,” tweeted Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat. “Then they passed a bill to overturn and CANCEL the votes of Key West residents who wanted to regulate cruise ships and protect the coral reef. Hypocrisy at its finest.”

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat running against DeSantis for Governor next year, said it’s ultimately bad politics to ignore the will of voters at the behest of wealthy donors. She slammed DeSantis in a statement for “overturning the will of voters in Key West and moving communities backwards on clean energy.”

That DeSantis signed the bill after his political committee received a $1 million donation from pier developer Mark Walsh, the most outward critic of the referendums, only upset many Kew West voters more.

But it’s also unclear what the net effect of the struggles so far may be. Because the law only touches on voter-approved measures, the port authority, in this case the city of Key West, could still pass policy that does the same thing.

City Commissioners have all gone on record saying they support the will of the voters regarding cruise rules, Keys Weekly reports. That means all eyes will be on the meeting next week when the City Commission may simply move forward with an ordinance that implements the same regulations just overturned by the new law.

There are questions, however, about what authority the city would have over a private pier, like Walsh’s Pier B.

Of note, it was lawmakers outside of South Florida who pushed for the change in law, and those lawmakers who represent Key West — Republicans Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez and Rep. Jim Mooney — voted against the preemption legislation.

At the same time, Roach argued during Session this may all be a moot issue anyway. The U.S. Constitution says only the federal government may regulate maritime matters. While he thought it was important for the state to step in so the cruise industry wasn’t further disrupted, he believes courts ultimately will say nothing can be passed locally to limit cruise ships.

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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