Tallahassee reaches too far down, again
The American experiment, now in its 25th decade, has been predicated upon one core principle when it comes to the form and function of government: that devolving power to the lowest level possible is critical because of the heterogeneity of the people and their local culture — or the “dissimilitude of interest, morals and politics,” as New York Gov. George Clinton wrote in October 1787.
In his survey of America during the 1830s, French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville picked up on the theme. He wrote that the heart of American democracy was located in the “township” — that is, local government. “In the township, as well as everywhere else, the people is the only source of power; but in no stage of government does the body of citizens exercise a more immediate influence,” Tocqueville wrote.
Can someone please teach that lesson in Tallahassee?
The Republican-led Legislature is once again trying to flex its muscle over Florida’s local governments, recalling the worst fears anti-Federalists like Clinton expressed more than two centuries ago about the national government, and more importantly, stripping Floridians of their ability to have “immediate influence” with local officials.
Lawmakers this year are pursuing a number of “pre-emption” bills whereby Tallahassee decides for itself how Florida counties and cities will govern themselves. One such measure — House Bill 3, offered by state Rep. Michael Grant, R-Port Charlotte — has groups representing local governments, including the Polk County Commission, particularly perturbed.
A House staff report points out that Grant’s bill would prohibit local governments from enacting or imposing new regulations on businesses after July 1, 2019, unless the local governing body can publicly justify such requirements are essential to protect public health, safety, or welfare; that the regulations do not “adversely affect the availability of the business’ services to the public”; and that the “least restrictive and most cost-effective regulatory scheme is being used.”
If local governments can achieve all that, officials still must prepare a statement showing the estimated regulatory costs. At that point the regulation requires support from two-thirds of the governing body, and would sunset within two years of the date of adoption.
The bill exempts proposed regulations dealing with zoning, nuisances and alcohol or tobacco, as well as those that increase building costs by less than $750.
Still, it imposes a tremendous burden on local governments.
Last week Grant told the Florida Phoenix the bill’s intent “is to save small business owners money.” “When you have a series of regulations from one county to another that differ,” he said, “it increases the cost to businesses.”
Cragin Mosteller of the Florida Association of Counties told us the bill definitely will affect things like retail sales of dogs and cats, civil rights laws such as employment protection for the LGBT community and ordinances governing strip clubs. She added that the association believes the bill is applicable to zoning ordinances, based on its reading of the language. The Florida Phoenix reported coastal communities worry it would repeal or preclude bans on plastic straws or cups on the beaches.
Who knows where else it could lead?
Grant has a point. And normally we support removing the regulatory shackles from business owners. But this bill destroys the right of local officials to regulate commerce as they see fit for their constituents. Some pople, for example, may disagree with bans on plastic straws or local mandates on hiring practices for certain minority groups. But that doesn’t mean Miami, Fort Myers or Orlando should be blocked from enacting such rules if they want them.
The beauty of the American system is the “immediate influence” Tocqueville spoke of — to wit, business owners who believe the cost of doing business is outsized are free to petition local leaders to rethink their rules, and if that fails, to refrain from doing business in that community.
The authority of local governments is not sacrosanct. On some issues, the Legislature must step in and overrule. But Grant’s bill is too much, too controlling and goes too far. Lawmakers ought to reject it.
A longer version of this editorial first appeared in The Ledger, a News Herald sister paper with GateHouse Media.