Florida bill allows companies to sue to change local government laws

Legislation that would make it easier for businesses and individuals in Florida to challenge local ordinances allowed its first test in the state Senate on Wednesday, with supporters calling it a necessary check on government brutality and opponents saying the bill goes too far.

The measure, sponsored by Republican Sen. Travis Hutson, would require cities and counties to write a “business impact statement” on a draft ordinance and require the suspension of any ordinance when challenged by a lawsuit under certain conditions – and if the lawsuit wins, the government will have to pay attorneys’ fees.

The bill was approved by the Senate Community Affairs Committee after a lengthy hearing that included testimony from opponents, including the Florida League of Cities, Florida Association of Counties and League of Women Voters.

“Why do we even have local government if we’re going to allow individuals and businesses to tie their hands?” said Trish Neely of the League of Women Voters.

Concerns have also been raised about the potential costs of the “business impact statement” requirement, especially for the hundreds of small towns and villages that dot the Florida landscape.

In addition, the bill would change a legal norm – known as “rational basis review” – in which judges must now simply decide whether a challenged order is part of a legitimate government interest. Instead, the measure would add a list of new factors for judges to consider, such as whether the order protects people’s health, well-being, safety and quality of life as well as the impact economics on business.

Supporters include powerful business interests such as Florida Associated Industries, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. Their supporters in the Senate said the measure brought greater accountability to local governments when they seek to impose unduly harsh or unreasonable rules.

“They don’t have any investment and they tell you what you can and can’t do,” said GOP Sen. Dennis Baxley, a funeral director by trade. “It gives businesses a voice to respond to the heavy hand of government that can break them. Business people are not your enemies. They are the backbone of your community.

Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democrat and lawyer, called the legislation “the preemption bill of all preemption bills,” referring to the frequent practice of Florida lawmakers to overrule local policymakers and sometimes voters. on many topics. Farmer noted that local governments are taking important steps such as regulating liquor sales in bars, overseeing adult entertainment venues, creating affordable housing, and even restricting puppy mill sales.

“These are important orders that protect people,” Farmer said. “We must be respectful of local elected officials and the people who elect them. We are going too far with this bill.

Hutson, whose family runs a development company, said state lawmakers are “now the last line of defense” when local governments go too far and claimed the bill would actually streamline and speed up challenges from local decisions. He also noted that the bill still has two stops in committee before it can reach the Senate floor and that changes are possible.

“We have a long way to go,” Hutson said.

Florida’s regular legislative session that began Tuesday continues through March 11.