FL lawmakers trying to squash Key West voters’ wishes, but forget one thing

February 18, 2021 7:00 am

Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Sea, leaving the Port of Key West. Credit: Steve Apps

You hear a lot around Presidents’ Day and other patriotic holidays about how great democracy is and how important voting is. But in Florida, when a vote doesn’t go the way big corporations like, our Legislature is ever eager to squash the voters’ wishes.

Sometimes, though, in their rush to crank up the steamroller for a good squashing, our legislators do something particularly boneheaded.

A good example is what’s going on right now with Key West and cruise ships.

Until about a year ago, Key West was a busy town, its streets crowded with both tourists and chickens. But when the pandemic hit last year, a lot of the tourists disappeared (the chickens, of course, continue roaming unchecked).

Prior to March, thousands of tourists had been arriving three times a day via the ginormous cruise ships that dropped anchor in the town’s port. Nearly 1 million cruise ship passengers visited the city of 25,000 residents in 2019.

When COVID-19 turned the ships into floating petri dishes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered them all docked for the duration. They still haven’t been allowed back to sea.

Not long after the cruise ships stopped visiting, Key West residents spotted something interesting.

Arlo Haskell

“We all noticed a pretty striking improvement in the near-shore water quality,” Key West native Arlo Haskell, executive director of the Key West Literary Seminar, told me this week. Soon, anglers noticed their catch improving, too, he said.

Six trips a day by the big cruise ships had been stirring up the heavy silt in the 6-mile long, 300-foot-wide channel that leads to the port — a channel that’s fairly close to a sensitive but very productive coral reef, which suffers when the water turns murky.

The clearer water, and concerns about the cruise ships bringing diseased passengers to an island with only one hospital, helped fuel a drive to scale back the ships’ impact. A group that Haskell helped form and lead, the Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships, put forward three referendum items for the voters to consider, and they all passed in November by a wide margin.

The first bans cruise ships with a capacity of more than 1,300 people from docking in the city. The second limits the number of cruise passengers who can disembark each day to 1,500. The third says cruise lines with good environmental and health safety records get to disembark first. The first two passed with support from more than 60 percent of the voters, while the third got more than 80 percent.

They passed these measures despite a secretive campaign by the cruise ship industry — exposed by the Miami Herald — to fool the voters with misinformation.

Now a state senator is jumping in to help the industry beat the voters retroactively. But when I read his bill — SB 426 and its identically worded companion, HB 267 — I started laughing, because something significant was missing.

Then I watched a legislative committee this week spend more than an hour discussing the Key West situation. Not one single member of the committee brought up this problem that, to me, was as obvious as an iceberg in front of the Titanic.

Tossing overboard a 200-year-old system

The only thing that was obvious to the committee members was that the voters had made a choice that was Bad For Business and must be overturned — even if it means tossing out a system that’s been in place for nearly 200 years.

The port of Key West has been controlled by the city since 1828. It and the other 14 Florida ports scattered from Pensacola to Miami are all controlled by local government entities — the city, the county, or a local port authority, according to the Florida Ports Council.

The local governments make all kinds of decisions regarding commerce at their ports, such as who can lease space there. For instance, in 2019, the Port of Fort Pierce chose to specialize in repairing mega-yachts to the exclusion of other businesses.

Nobody complained about this arrangement in two centuries — until now, when a few legislators are ready to toss it overboard to help the powerful cruise industry.

SB 426 is sponsored by Sen. Jim Boyd, a Bradenton insurance executive who previously served in the House, which means he probably should know better than to make this particular mistake that he’s made.

His four-page bill goes through some rigmarole about how important the ports are to Florida’s economy before finally getting around to their point: “Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, a local government may not restrict or regulate commerce in the seaports of this state … . All such matters are expressly preempted to the state.”

In other words: You Key West yahoos want to make changes that hurt the cruise industry? We’ll just have to take your port away from you — and from the other 14 (even the one with the mega-yachts) — and hand it over to the state of Florida.

Reading this reminded me of the scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” where the evil French archaeologist Belloq tells Indiana Jones, “Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away.”

That didn’t end well for Belloq, but the Legislature does this kind of thing all the time.

You want to grant ex-felons their voting rights? Too bad, says the Legislature, we’re going to throw up additional roadblocks to them voting. You want us to spend more money on saving wilderness from development? Too bad, we’re going to finagle the budget so we can continue starving the Florida Forever fund. You want to limit class sizes in schools? Too bad, we’re going to cook the books so classes seem compliant when they aren’t. A legislator is already plotting to undermine the vote to raise the minimum wage to $15, creating worker classifications that would be exempt.

Way back in 1981, Florida’s schoolchildren voted to make the Florida panther our official state animal. But when it came time for the Legislature to ratify that choice, some lawmakers said the kids didn’t know what they were doing, because obviously Florida’s state animal should be the gator (I suspect they were U.F. grads). A public uproar made them back down.

At least the pro-gator legislators weren’t as dunderheaded as the sponsors of SB 426/HB 267, who forgot something pretty significant when they wrote those bills.

What they forgot, what they assumed

I sought an interview with Sen. Boyd about his bill, but he was unavailable, alas. One of his aides sent me a vague statement about why he filed his pro-industry, anti-voter bill: “With the tremendous economic loss many encountered this past year, I don’t believe we ought to restrict opportunities for Floridians to be able to earn a living and support their families.”

Not a word about people being able to halt pollution in their own community, though.

I contacted a couple of the groups that are backing the bills. Neither mentioned the flaw in the bills. Instead, they both referred to quilting.

“We support the legislation in concept because it confirms the principle that maritime commerce is subject to a uniform regulatory framework instead of a patchwork of conflicting restrictions in each municipality,” Laziza Lambert, of the Cruise Lines International Association, told me in an email.

The Florida Harbor Pilots Association supports the bills “because it is critically important that commerce in Florida seaports is conducted under the consistent and predictable framework already established in federal and state law,” spokeswoman Sarah Bascom said. “A patchwork of new local government regulations would make port operations unpredictable, drive away commerce, threaten port investments, disrupt Florida’s economy, and result in job loss.”

The “patchwork” argument gets trotted out when the Legislature wants to bigfoot some local government decision that protects trees or bars the sale of a type of sunscreen that’s bad for marine life. Of course, in this instance the “patchwork” has been working fine for a long, long time.

But here’s the question nobody wanted to address: If you take control of the ports from local governments and hand it to the state, what part of the state gets it?

This is why I was laughing. Boyd’s bill never specifies which state agency should take charge of the ports. Could it be because there’s no state agency with a background in operating ports?

The Department of Transportation might be able to step in — except this is the agency that screwed up its toll-collection system and angered motorists all over the state. Now it’s scrambling to deal with a politically driven demand for three expensive new toll roads nobody wants (a project pushed by Boyd’s Senate predecessor, Bradenton lawyer Bill Galvano).

So DOT has its hands full. Who else? This is kind of an emergency, so how about the Division of Emergency Management? No, they’re busy fumbling vaccine distribution. How about Visit Florida? No, the controversial tourism agency is too busy trying to convince out-of-staters that it’s safe to come back here, in spite of the pictures of people not wearing masks while celebrating the Super Bowl.

One intriguing possibility came to mind when I was discussing this with someone from the Florida Ports Council, which is made up of representatives from the 15 ports. The council wasn’t thrilled about the Key West vote, but it opposes these bills the way the Pope opposes sin — to the surprise of some of the bills’ supporters.

“Initially, some people thought we would be in favor of this,” Jessie Werner, the council’s vice president for public affairs, told me. “Apparently they misunderstood that we’re an association. We wouldn’t want to be a port authority.”

Can you believe it? Somebody thought the way to punish the Key West voters was to take away their power over the port and hand it to the Florida Ports Council, not understanding that the council is not a government agency.

I asked Sen. Boyd’s aide about this. He didn’t answer but insisted the bills won’t take away all of the local governments’ control, just their power to regulate commerce. I guess that means junking the Fort Pierce mega-yacht operation. That limits commerce too, right?

I swear, sometimes watching our Legislature at work is a lot like watching the chickens in Key West. They strut around and make a lot of noise like they’re independent but, in reality, they’ll follow anyone who tosses them enough feed.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.