Florida Op-ed: Preemption bills a self-serving war on cities

Our Campaign Manager’s op-ed on the war on Florida cities has been featured in the following outlets:

  • The Tallahassee Democrat
  • Florida Today
  • The Gainesville Sun

Florida lawmakers have some weighty issues to consider. An underfunded education system, health care for low-income Floridians, tackling opioid abuse, the annual buffet of tax cuts and an $87 billion budget will be on legislators’ minds for the upcoming session.

But state Sen. Greg Steube is concerned about trees.

Normally, that would be a good thing. We could use more lawmakers standing up for the environment and championing common-sense protections for our state’s natural treasures, including the trees that contribute to our biodiversity.

That’s not what Steube meant, though.

Instead, he’s proposed a law that would allow anyone to cut down trees without local communities having a say. Indeed, Senate Bill 574 would prevent cities and counties from requiring permits for the trimming, removal or mitigation of certain trees on private property.

Surely, a massive outcry from Steube’s district for less tree regulation is what prompted the bill’s filing. Undoubtedly, his constituents — bearing chainsaws and wood chippers — demanded he rein in cities and their onerous tree-trimming permits.

Actually, Steube was upset he needed to acquire said permit to cut down some trees on his property. So, he filed legislation that would wipe out local authority to ensure maintenance, trimming and properly permitted work on Florida’s flora.

I’ll go out on a limb, though; Steube’s bill isn’t just brazen self-interest. The land developers, builder associations and construction industry that have contributed nearly $10,000 to his most recent campaign certainly appreciate the gesture, too.

It would seem patently ridiculous for Steube to spend time fighting to prevent local regulations on trees, root and branch. But it’s another dangerous sign of a trend sweeping the nation.

Florida’s legislature, like many others across the country, has gone preemption crazy.

Whether blocking livable wages in Alabama, preventing discrimination protections in Missouri, banning environmental ordinances in Arizona, thwarting gun safety measures in Tennessee or preempting nearly everything in North Carolina, legislatures are waging war on local communities attempting to address local problems with local solutions.

SB 574 is just the latest example of preemption in Florida. Last year, lawmakers pushed through a ban on more local hiring on public works projects. They tried to preempt cities from regulating local businesses, including strip clubs and bars. And they’re back this year with even more preemption bills.

State lawmakers, lobbyists and special interest groups characterize city and county ordinances as “over-reaching” to justify their interference in local matters. In reality, it’s heavy-handed state preemption efforts that require pruning back. More than simple power grabs, preemption laws have become spiteful, shortsighted vehicles to advance personal and corporate agendas.

When it comes to Steube’s self-serving tree folly, perhaps he’s been inspired by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Earlier this year, Abbott pushed for local tree ordinance preemption — after learning he couldn’t cut down heritage pecan trees without planting new ones. Or perhaps he’s taking a page from Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who recently said of the rights of local communities, “that’s where the wars are.”

Citizens elect mayors and commissioners not only to pass ordinances, but to represent their community’s values. They hold those officials accountable at the grocery store, at church and at the ballot box.

I’ve always believed that the power of our country is supposed to rest in the voices and votes of the people, not in business interests or lawmakers with a grudge.

Maybe I’m just barking up the wrong tree.

Michael Alfano is campaign manager of the Campaign to Defend Local Solutions. He lives in Tallahassee.