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There's a war on democracy in Florida. It's being waged by Big Business.
For at least the fourth time in 10 years, big businesses used politicians in Tallahassee to thwart the will of local voters.
This is Seeking Rents, a newsletter and podcast devoted to producing original journalism — and lifting up the journalism of others — that examines the many ways that businesses influence public policy across Florida, written by Jason Garcia. Seeking Rents is free to all. But please consider a voluntary paid subscription, if you can afford one, to help support our work.
For all the focus on the Republican wave that swept across Florida this week, people in Orlando delivered another message, too:
The rent really is too damn high.
Voters in Orange County — the county that includes Orlando and is the beating heart of Florida’s low-wage tourism industry — approved a local referendum calling for rent control in what has become one of the most unaffordable housing markets in the country.
This was a remarkable result. A coalition of corporate landlords, apartment developers and real-estate agents spent roughly $2 million advertising against this rent-control referendum.
It was an utterly one-sided ad war. I live in Orlando and, at one point, I got seven pieces of mail in two weeks warning me of all the terrible things that would happen if I were to vote in favor of rent control. I got one — one — piece of mail urging me to support it.
And yet, rent control didn’t just pass. It passed with 59 percent of the vote.
Orange County is a Democratic-leaning county, and the Democrat at the top of the ticket this year was Val Demings. Demings, who ran for U.S. Senate, represents Orlando in Congress. She used to be the chief of the Orlando Police Department. Her husband is the mayor of Orange County.
Val Demings got more votes in Orange County than any other politician on the ballot. She didn’t get as many votes as rent control. That’s how much Orange County voters want this.
But they’re not going to get it.
That’s because the Florida Legislature has passed a law that makes it nearly impossible for cities and counties to enact local rent control.1 The advocates who got the Orange County referendum onto the ballot tried to walk a legal tight rope across that law. But several judges have already ruled that the ordinance will likely be struck down.
And on the miraculous chance that it somehow survives court scrutiny, you can bet the Legislature will step in to help the landlords again. Just last week, the new president of the Florida Senate — a real-estate attorney from Naples with a net worth of nearly $12 million — told the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times that she opposes rent control.
In fact, there have been repeated efforts over the last few years to repeal the state law barring local rent control.2 But Republican leaders in Tallahassee have refused to allow hearings on those bills — appeasing organizations like the Florida Apartment Association, a front group for giant apartment owners like Camden Property Trust and Mid-America Apartment Communities.
The bottom line: Politicians and lobbyists in Tallahassee have teamed up to thwart the will of the voters.
And this isn’t the first time.
Stopping sick time for workers
Ten years ago — once again in Orange County — a coalition of worker and public-health advocates got a referendum onto the local ballot that would have required businesses in Orange County to provide their workers with earned sick time.
This was a modest proposal: Businesses with more than 15 employees would have had to let their workers accrue one hour of paid sick time for every 40 hours they worked. Smaller businesses would have had to provide sick time, too, but it could have been unpaid.
But before the vote on the referendum could happen, lobbyists for some of the biggest low-wage employers in Orlando — particularly Disney World, Universal Studios and Darden, the corporation that owns Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse restaurants — raced to Tallahassee to get state politicians to intervene.
These lobbyists persuaded then-Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature to pass a law that forbids cities and counties from making businesses provide sick-time to their workers — or any other kind of benefit, from health insurance to retirement plans.3
What made this especially gross is that Disney, Darden and the rest didn’t even try to debate this issue on the merits or in public. Reporters at the Orlando Sentinel discovered dozens of text messages between corporate lobbyists and their elected official allies in which they laid out their entire strategy: Delay the Orange County referendum until Tallahassee could deliver what one operative secretly called the “kill shot.”
Orange County voters ended up approving the sick-time referendum by an even bigger margin than rent control: 64 percent of voters supported it.
But it didn’t matter. Politicians in Tallahassee — the same people who take millions of dollars each election cycle from companies like Disney, Darden and Universal — had already fired that kill shot.
And this all happened yet again in Orange County just two years ago.
This time, a group of environmentalists pushed for a referendum on whether Orange County should adopt a local “Rights of Nature” law.
Rights of Nature laws are a way to add teeth to environmental-protection rules that some companies routinely flout or that some government agencies refuse to enforce.
Say a developer is about to destroy some wetlands that filter the water in a nearby lake, and a government agency is going to let it happen. A Rights of Nature law allows a person — like a nearby homeowner, maybe, or an environmental activist — to sue on behalf of that lake to stop it.
As you might expect, real-estate developers and industrial polluters like phosphate miners and sugar producers are terrified of the idea of granting legal rights to plants, animals or bodies of water. So, just like Disney and Darden did with sick time, they ran to Tallahassee for help and got Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature to pass a law that prevents cities and counties from enacting Rights of Nature ordinances.4
Orange County’s Rights of Nature referendum ended up passing with 89 percent of the vote. That is absurdly popular. It means the vast majority of Republicans, Democrats and independents in Orange County all supported it. Yet once again, politicians in Tallahassee and the state’s big business lobby colluded to cut it off at the knees.
Forcing Key West to accept cruise ships
But the most anti-democratic example of this occurred just last year.
It arose out of Key West, where voters in 2020 approved three referendums designed to prevent monstrously large, environmentally destructive cruise ships from docking in the small island city. The measures limited the size of cruise ships that could call on Key West, capped the number of passengers they could drop off, and gave docking priority to the cruise lines with the strongest environmental records.
Just like the referendums on stick time, rights of nature and rent control, these were enormously popular. Each referendum passed with at least 60 percent of the vote. One of them got 80 percent.
But unlike the others, these cruise ship restrictions actually went into effect.
You can probably guess what happened next, though. Lobbyists for cruise lines, harbor pilots and a pier operator went to work in Tallahassee, where they got Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature to enact a law overturning the Key West elections.5
This was a watershed moment. Because this wasn’t just Big Businesses rushing to the state Capitol to cut local voters off at the pass. This was silencing voters after they had already spoken.
And it all happened after a business owner who runs a Key West cruise pier gave Ron DeSantis nearly $1 million.
The Carnival Dream — which weighs 130,000 tons and carries 4,500 passengers — will be docking in Key West next week.
Helping Uber, ADT and AT&T
These state laws that strip powers away from local governments are known as “preemptions,” because Tallahassee is preemptively stopping a city or county from doing something. And these preemptions that directly thwarted the will of local voters are just the tip of the iceberg.
In fact, over the past 10 years, Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature — working first with Rick Scott and now with Ron DeSantis — has passed more than 40 preemptions taking away, or at least sharply restricting, the power of local governments to regulate everything from tree trimming to the size of fast-food restaurant signs.
And if you pull back the curtain on these preemptions, there is very often one big business or industry standing behind it.
Last year, for instance, DeSantis and the Legislature forced cities and counties to let power companies build solar power plants on any land zoned for farming.6
This legislation was filed one week after Florida Power & Light filed a lawsuit against Walton County because commissioners in the Panhandle community had denied FPL’s plans for a solar farm on agricultural land. One of the people who testified in favor of the bill was a landowner under contract with FPL.
Uber lobbied for a law stopping local governments from regulating ride-sharing platforms.7 The American Gas Association lobbied for a law forcing cities and counties to allow natural gas hookups in new home construction.8 ADT lobbied for a law capping permit fees for alarm installations.9
In 2017, lobbyists for AT&T helped write a law that stripped local governments of the power to control the location of new 5G poles.10 Since then, there have been a bunch of home- and business-owners around the state angered by 5G poles suddenly popping up right outside windows or in other obtrusive spots.
Don’t blame your city council. That was the Florida Legislature’s fault.
Killing good government reform
These preemptions are rarely about partisanship. They’re just about money.
A few years ago, for instance, the city of St. Petersburg passed a local law designed to get dark money out of city elections. Called the “Defend Our Democracy” ordinance, it essentially prohibited Super PACs and political committees from spending money on local races. It imposed limits on corporate contributions, too.
There aren’t many issues that draw more bipartisan support from voters than campaign-finance reform. Whether you’re Republican, Democrat or independent, you probably agree that there is too much money in politics — and that the public should know who is spending it.
About the only people who oppose campaign-finance reform are big donors — and the politicians who want to take their money.
Naturally, the Florida Legislature couldn’t allow this to stand. Last year, it passed a bill dissolving St. Petersburg’s “Defend Our Democracy” ordinance and forbidding any cities or counties from ever attempting any similar campaign-finance reforms in the future.11 Ron DeSantis signed it into law.
Among the bill’s supporters? The Florida Chamber of Commerce, an organization funded primarily by half a dozen of the state’s biggest campaign contributors.
The end game
Get ready for more of this, too, especially following a landslide election in Florida that allows DeSantis and Republican leaders in the Legislature to claim a mandate from voters.
Here’s one likely target: A number of cities around Florida have recently adopted ordinances that require landlords to give tenants more advance notice if they plan to raise the rent by more than 5 percent or start eviction proceedings. There are already rumblings that DeSantis and the Legislature will override those laws during the 2023 legislative session, which begins in March.
But there’ll be plenty of other preemptions, too. For instance, one of the country’s biggest electrical contracting firms has been lobbying for a state law that would undo local ordinances that require contractors pay their workers a little bit more than the minimum wage.12
And the Legislature, at least, has made it clear that it wants to go even further than it already has.
Last year, urged on by big business lobbying groups like the Florida Chamber, Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, the Legislature seriously considered two different bills that would have given companies ammunition to sue cities and counties over regulations they don’t like.
Lawmakers sent one of those bills to DeSantis, who decided to veto it in an election year.13 But it’s a good bet that lawmakers will, at a minimum, try sending DeSantis the other bill this time around.14
This is a dangerous path we’re on. Because the inevitable end game here is that state leaders — egged on, in all likelihood, by some big donor — will eventually just abolish a city altogether.
That’s not a Chicken Little warning. Just last year, after Florida legislators faced criticism from people in Key West angry at them for overturning the city’s cruise ship ban, someone in Tallahassee had a bill drafted to eliminate the city government in Key West and transfer its powers to Monroe County.
The bill was never filed. But the threat was clear.
It still is.