A highly contentious bill enabling businesses to sue governments for revenue lost as a result of new local ordinances is ready for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature after clearing its final stop in the Legislature on Wednesday.
The measure (SB 620), titled the “Local Business Protection Act,” creates a route for businesses to seek damages from local governments if they can prove a new law caused a 15% income loss in one year. Eligible companies that have operated for at least three years in a jurisdiction would be able to recover expert-determined sums unless the municipality or county in question rescinds the ordinance.
Following roughly 25 minutes of debate in which Democrats again implored their Republican colleagues to reconsider the bill, which critics have warned will severely constrain local governance, the House voted 69-45 for the bill on mostly party lines.
Republican Reps. Thad Altman, Melony Bell, Sam Killebrew, Patt Maney, Jim Mooney and David Smith broke with their ranks to vote “no” on the bill, which the Senate passed 22-14 on Jan. 27.
Rep. Anika Omphroy was the lone Democrat to vote for the bill.
“This will absolutely ask our local governments to pause before they enact an ordinance that will hurt jobs in businesses,” said Rep. Lawrence McClure of Dover, who carried the bill’s House companion (HB 569). “Until you haven’t slept because you’re worried about making payroll or wondering how you’re going to service debt or where the next customer is going to come from, I don’t really want to hear how tough it is to be a local government official that can enact ordinances that cause further pain on the private sector.”
The bill could chill efforts by local governments to follow through on the will of their electorate, such as in Miami Beach, where 56% of voters in November said they favored moving up the last call for alcohol sales by three hours to 2 a.m. to curb crime and noise.
That can still be done under the new rules, according to St. Augustine Republican Sen. Travis Hutson. Hutson is the man behind SB 620 and a related proposal nearing enactment that would allow businesses to sue and freeze local ordinances until a judge rules on the dispute. It just has to be done gradually, he told Florida Politics in January.
“Let’s say a bar has been operating at 2 a.m., and there’s a compelling interest to move them down,” he said. “If you start at midnight and then realize, ‘Oh, there’s a 15% damage or more,’ then maybe you have that conversation before you pass your ordinance and (instead) move it to 1 a.m. the first year. Then, the next year, you move it to midnight.
“You can piecemeal these ordinances to get to where you want to go. It’s just not a quick snap to a business so they’re not left behind in the dust.”
That approach would be less effective for other local aims, such as efforts in Key West to limit the size of cruise ships calling on the city’s port — a push advocates say will reduce environmental damage from larger vessels.
It also would have little impact on so-called “puppy mills” and similar for-profit operations that traffic in mistreated animals. On Tuesday, Democratic Hollywood Rep. Evan Jenne proposed one of three amendments House Republicans shot down that would carve out an exception in the bill so local governments could shut down such businesses.
Killebrew backed the amendment, which failed 69-46.
Another rejected amendment from Tuesday, which Jacksonville Democratic Rep. Angie Nixon proffered, called for applying the proposed new law to the state government.
“The Legislature just passed anti-net metering legislation, which could decimate rooftop solar businesses in Florida. During the gaming Special Session, the Legislature ended a form of horse racing,” she said. “The Legislature constantly picks winners and losers, passing special interest tax breaks favoring some businesses over the other, so … what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
The bill earned support from the Florida League of Cities last month after Hutson amended it to exempt ordinance or charter provisions supporting economic competition and requiring businesses to have been within the jurisdiction, not just the state, for a minimum of three years.
Other groups, like the Florida AFL-CIO, have argued it will deter local governments from passing popular legislation to address environmental, housing and social needs.
There’s a mutually beneficial relationship between the private and public sector whose balance will be upended by this legislation, said Democratic Rep. Christina Hunschofsky, a former Mayor of Parkland.
“For those of us who come from local government, our businesses are actually owned by our neighbors and people we’ve grown up with, people we’ve coached in our teams. They’re not some random business that we’re all out to get,” she said. “This is just going to give the bad actors another opportunity to threaten local governments to get their way.”