The Florida Senate is about to attack local freedom — again
The Trade Show (2023 ed.), Vol. 2
This is “The Trade Show,” a weekly collection of shorter news nuggets and stories from other outlets around the state and country about the special interest-driven issues that lawmakers spend most of their time working on. These are issues that ultimately have enormous impact on everyday Floridians. But they don’t get nearly enough attention outside of Tallahassee, because politicians use culture wars to distract everyone’s attention. The name comes from something a mentor once told me before I covered my very first legislative session more than 20 years ago: “Ninety percent of what goes on up here is a trade show.”
Another months of work behind the scenes, Republican leaders in the Florida Senate this week unveiled their plan to address the state’s affordable-housing crisis — largely by sweet-talking developers and landlords into offering more affordable apartments with the promise of tax breaks, loans and zoning certainty.
But the Senate plan (SB 102) includes another big favor for the apartment industry. It would forbid any city or county in Florida from ever enacting local rent control or rent stabilization. (Sorry, Orange County voters.) The ban on rent control is, quite literally, the very first policy in the Senate’s 93-page housing bill.
It’s also just the first of many attacks that are coming this session on local freedom — and on the power of local voters to make decisions about their own communities.
“Stay tuned,” Senate President Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) told reporters during a briefing on the Senate’s affordable-housing plan. “I’ve got another bill coming — we have another bill coming — to address the preemption issue.”
Passidomo didn’t elaborate. But this week, another bill was quietly filed in the Florida Senate that is designed to scare cities and counties out of even attempting to do things like protect tenants from predatory landlords, improve working conditions for employees, or protect cats, dogs and other animals.
The bill (SB 170) would, among other things, allow a business to sue a city or county on the claim that a new local law is “arbitrary or unreasonable.” And it could force the city or county to pay the business up to $50,000 in fees and damages.
This is similar to a bill that passed the Senate last year — and was a personal priority of Passidomo’s. But it didn’t make it through the Florida House of Representatives.
So the Senate is going to try again this year. Passidiomo has already put the bill on the fast track: It’s been referred to just two committees, instead of the usual three.
A new corporate tax break
One of the most…let’s call it interesting…provisions in the Senate’s affordable-housing plan is a new corporate tax break that would allow some very large taxpayers to, in effect, steer their tax payments into subsidies for apartment developers.
Here's how it would work: Companies that pay corporate income tax (very large businesses) or insurance premium tax (insurance companies) could donate money to a state-run program that makes loans to apartment developers who include affordable units in their developments.
In exchange, these companies would get tax credits equal to however much they donate that they could then use to wipe out their corporate income or insurance premium tax payments. The state would make up to $100 million of these new “Live Local” tax credits available every year.
This is basically the same way Florida funds one of its biggest private-school voucher programs (the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship). But there's another wrinkle here.
The Florida Housing Finance Corp., the agency that runs the apartment-loan program, could spend up to $25 million of this money on loans for a new category of project: "Large-scale" apartment developments with "significant regional impact."
A "large-scale" project would be an apartment development that: 1) Includes a "substantial civic, education or health care use," either within the development or next to it; 2) Has at least 50 percent more apartments than the next biggest apartment complex within 30 miles; and 3) Agrees to affordability restrictions on at least 20 percent of its apartments.
The reason this is….interesting….is that only really big corporations pay any Florida corporate tax at all (because state lawmakers have made the tax so easy to avoid). And this new corporate tax break could be used to subsidize apartment projects built by really big developers.
Now, the bill does say that a company donating to the housing agency cannot direct that its donation be spent on a specific project, property or geographic area. But you can bet there would be some intense behind-the-scenes lobbying to make sure that's exactly what happens.
Katie Betta, a spokesperson for the Florida Senate, said the process of awarding these “large-scale” loans would be transparent.
“It is a competitive process, so there would be a great deal of information available about who is applying and for what purpose,” Betta said. “And those decisions are made at FHFC board meetings, which are public.”
The governor’s housing plan
Speaking of housing, there was an illuminating moment this week in Miami, when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was asked what he could do to help Floridians struggling to afford skyrocketing rents.
And the governor said…nothing.
First, DeSantis blamed inflation. Then, he said the problem was getting better on its own. Then, he mentioned that Passidomo was working on something already that he’d probably support. And then he trolled Anthony Fauci.
Read it yourself. Here’s the full exchange:
Question: Is there anything you can push state lawmakers [to do] that could ease the burden that renters have, here in South Florida and across the state?
DeSantis: So the question’s about living costs, particularly with rent. I mean, I think some of it was being driven by the worst inflation we’ve had in 40 years. And so people’s utilities, everything, gas, all that, has gone up over the last few years. And, of course, the rent was a big part of that.
I do think that, because we have so much multifamily that’s been under construction in Florida, you are going to see more of that come on line. There has actually been — because I think, 2021, was, like, through the roof — you’ve seen it ease up in terms of the increases.
The Senate president — number one priority is to help provide more affordable housing throughout the state of Florida. So she’s working on a very big proposal. You guys’ll be hearing about it very soon. I fully anticipate to be able to throw my support behind it. But I think it’s going to cover a lot of different aspects of this.
Part of the issue with South Florida is just this has been one of the number one places to go to over the last few years. Because you had so many other areas that were basically Fauci-villes. So who wants to live there? They want to come to Miami. They want to move to do this. I mean, that’s just the reality.
The art of distraction
DeSantis served up that housing word salad at an event where he unveiled the broad strokes of “law-and-order” legislation he wants the Legislature to pass this session. (The governor made sure to include a reference to rainbow fentanyl, which was the national media’s favorite scare-mongering story last Halloween.)
The contrast between how vague DeSantis was on housing, and how detailed he was on crime and punishment, is yet another another example of how hard the governor works to keep attention on his culture-war fights instead of his economic policies.
Read: Ron DeSantis is counting on journalists not connecting him to Floridians losing their health coverage(Media Matters)
Busting unions in Florida
DeSantis also announced this week that he will ask lawmakers to boost teacher pay by another $200 million — a politically popular and laudable policy goal.
But the governor paired his higher teacher pay proposal with something much more sinister: An attempt to undermine union protections for teachers.
Among other things, the governor wants the Legislature to give his administration more power to investigate teacher unions, forbid unions from distributing materials in schools, and block school districts from automatically deducting union dues from teacher paychecks.
That last bit, which supporters call “Paycheck Protection,” is something that anti-union groups like the big business-funded American Legislative Exchange Council have been pushing for years. DeSantis and other Republicans claim they are trying to protect individual teachers, and to make sure teachers know exactly how much union membership costs them. Oddly, they never seem to care about extending this same “protection” to police officers and firefighters, whose unions are far more supportive of Republican politicians.
Read: Gov. Ron DeSantis proposes teacher pay boost with deadline, new union rules (WPTV)
Building unions in other states
The real goal, of course, is simply to weaken teacher unions, who are some of the most reliable supporters of Democratic politicians. But this also goes far beyond electoral politics.
Anti-union legislation like “Paycheck Protection” bills are ultimately aimed at weakening all unions and undermining the ability of workers to bargain for higher pay, better benefits and safer workplaces — in both the public and private sectors.
That’s because all workers, public and private, ultimately benefit from each other’s gains in contract negotiations. “If auto workers earn more, teacher wages go up,” Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley, recently told NPR’s station in Detroit. “As people in the community begin earning more, this impacts the service economy, as well as manufacturing.”
This is also an reminder of the different choices being made in other states.
Read: Michigan Democrats look to repeal right-to-work law (WDET)
Exit stage left
The most surprising story in Florida politics this week was the retirement of Eric Silagy, the top executive at electricity giant Florida Power & Light — one of the most politically powerful business executive in the state over the past 15 years or so.
Silagy’s retirement comes after FPL was rocked by controversy over the past two years, from the involvement of FPL consultants in Florida’s 2020 “ghost candidate” scandal to the company’s attempted takeover of Jacksonville’s publicly owned utility and So. Much. More. Silagy featured prominently in some of these stories, from using a pseudonym email account to ordering lobbyists to make a state senator’s life “a living hell.”
There was lots written about this. But let’s give the last word to Nate Monroe, the Florida Times-Union columnist who was literally followed around by folks involved in some of these scandals.
Read: Eric Silagy, FPL's chief brawler, leaves legacy of high profits but low trust (Florida Times-Union)
"In exchange, these companies would get tax credits equal to however much they donate that they could then use to WIPE OUT their corporate income or insurance premium tax payments."
A company's controller would be insane to allow the company to donate enough to "wipe out" its income (so as to avoid paying any corporate tax.'
It's interesting how you tend to use hyperbolic verbs when it suits your narrative.
Thanks for your reporting. I agree that big-time developers make billions with state aid. The massive incentive to create affordable housing that this "aid" money is supposed to accomplish is a pittance when compared to the ultimate benefits that accrue to the developers.
You pretty much hit the nail on the head with the rent control and labor issues.
Outrageous government attitude and behaviour.