Editorial: Florida Legislature assault on home rule must end

  • The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board
3:56 p.m Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017 Opinion
In the upcoming 2018 legislative session, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, is expected to continue an assault on the state’s 50-year-old “home rule” statute, preempting the authority of counties and municipalities.

Florida’s counties and municipalities are under siege. But it’s not just from crises such as rising sea levels, a spreading opioid epidemic or lack of affordable housing.

The state’s Republican-controlled Legislature, which has been chipping away at Florida’s bedrock “home rule” statute for years, appears ready to take to a sledgehammer to it in the 2018 legislative session and supplant local elected officials’ authority on local issues with that of state lawmakers.

That would be bad for local residents and taxpayers.

As Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “The government closest to the people serves the people best.”

Florida voters came to that conclusion nearly 50 years ago, when they amended the state Constitution in 1968 to give home rule authority to counties and municipalities. Prior to that, most local decisions were made in Tallahassee, resulting in more than a 1,000 local bills being passed during the 60-day session. It was unwieldy, unnecessary and untenable.

Home rule allowed for the idea that local governments, and their elected officials, were better positioned to deal with local matters for their communities.

To be sure, local governance is far from perfect. The Post has chronicled numerous missteps by local government officials over the decades. But to suggest that state lawmakers in Tallahassee are better at governing than their brethren in every municipality and county in the state is not only ludicrous, but hypocritical. After all, this same GOP Legislature vehemently argues for states’ rights against the federal government.

Yes, there are many issues best addressed by our Legislature to maintain continuity throughout the state — such as water and land conservation, transportation infrastructure and health care. But on many issues — zoning ordinances, emergency services, building codes, solid waste disposal and business licensing, for example — local officials are better equipped to respond quickly to local residents.

Moreover, Tampa is not Tallahassee. Monticello is not Miami. And Jupiter is not Jacksonville.

Unfortunately, GOP lawmakers, especially in the House, increasingly don’t see it that way. Last session, several so-called “preemption bills” were introduced with the aim of giving Tallahassee more local control — especially of permitting. The most egregious of which was House Bill 17, which sought to “preempt the regulation of businesses, professions and occupations to the state.”

The bill, which would have given local residents no say in whether a “gentlemen’s club” was appropriate for their community, failed; but not before advancing further than anyone expected.

What didn’t fail was a bill that preempts local government control of public rights of way when it comes to the placement of small wireless equipment. To appease wireless providers, the new law disregards the fact that local governments treat their rights of way differently and keeps one city from charging more than another for a permit.

RELATED: Editorial: Homestead-exemption boost spells trouble for cities, county

And in the ultimate big-foot move, state lawmakers placed a constitutional amendment on next year’s general election ballot that would increase the non-school homestead exemption by $25,000. An analysis shows that if 60 percent of voters approve, it could reduce property-tax revenue to the cities, counties and special districts by $644 million a year. It could cost Palm Beach County about $25 million, the county’s fire-rescue services $9 million and cities an extra $17 million a year.

And with the backing of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, a version of HB 17 is expected to make a comeback in the upcoming session. Bolstered by its successful draconian assault on the state’s public school system with the passage of HB 7069 last session, the Corcoran-led House is poised to preempt even the most basic local permitting with a one-size-fits-all approach.

“I care more about the people of this state than I care about the governments of this state,” Corcoran said during the last session.

Well, so do we. Though not infallible, the governments closest to the people tend to be the most responsive to their needs.

From tree-cutting to the height of signs, local residents and taxpayers risk losing that local responsiveness unless they make their voices heard in Tallahassee.