FiLE - Carnival Cruise Miami

Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line, speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, in Miami, for Carnival Cruise Line's new Terminal F, which will be the homeport to the Carnival Celebration cruise ship at PortMiami.

(The Center Square) – Charter captains, biologists, poets and local elected officials were among dozens of Key West residents who boarded a 3 a.m. flight to Tallahassee to get their 2 minutes to testify Wednesday against a bill that would preempt local governments from regulating ports.

But it didn’t matter and the 20 Key West residents who testified against the bill were dismissed by the bill’s sponsor, who implied they don’t represent the rank-and-file of Key West.

“You heard a lot of passionate testimony today from the side that could get up here," said Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, “but the side that couldn’t get up here that’s down there struggling to make ends meet are who you didn’t hear from.”

And with that, the Senate Rules Committee approved Senate Bill 426 in a partisan 12-5 vote and sent it to the chamber floor for adoption.

SB 426 would prohibit local ballot initiatives from restricting seaport activity and preempts local governments from adopting regulations affecting port operations in any area of “critical state concern.”

The bill is in response to November Key West referendums in which 63 percent of voters agreed to ban cruise ships of 1,300-or-more passengers; 61 percent approved a 1,500-daily cap on cruise passengers; and 81 percent endorsed prioritizing passengers from cruise operators with the best environmental records.

SB 426 and its House companion, House Bill 267, filed by Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, maintain cruise ships are federally regulated and restricting passengers violates the U.S. Constitution. HB 267 awaits a hearing before the House Commerce Committee before advancing to the chamber floor.

The bills initially called for preempting local regulation in all 15 Florida seaports but was scaled back to only preclude Pensacola, Panama City, Key West and St. Petersburg from imposing port rules.

SB 426 was amended before Wednesday’s hearing to apply to any port near an area of “critical state concern” – namely Key West.

Key West Mayor Teri Johnson said the island’s rank-and-file voted overwhelmingly for the measures because they recognize preserving coral reefs and the Keys’ sensitive environment is vital to sustaining its tourist industry.

“They came out in droves,” Johnson said. “They came out in record numbers to vote on these three referendum agenda items and they were very, very clear.”

Key West residents said the bill reflects lobbyists’ views, not theirs'.

“What are you guys up to?” asked charter operator Capt. Billy Litmer. “I’m here wading around in a swamp of special interests of cruise ship companies, companies who register offshore to evade taxes and companies who are led by CEOs that have no problem killing the reef with their ships.”

Proponents countered with testimony from Warren Husband, Florida Harbor Pilots Association attorney, who said cruise ships aren’t responsible for turbidity that biologists say is killing sensitive coral.

“There is no scientifically-based study that I’ve seen that’s true science that suggests the reefs are being destroyed,” Boyd said.

Preemption has been a theme in Florida for years. The 2019 legislative session generated nearly 50 proposed preemption bills and the 2020 session produced three dozen more, including the Occupational Freedom & Opportunity Act and a bill blocking local governments from increasing impact fees.

The trend has continued in 2021 with a wave of preemption bills, including SB 522, which would place vacation rentals under state regulation, HB 55 which would prevent local governments from placing design restrictions on “open lot” residences and HB 919, which would preempt cities from restricting which forms of energy can be provided.

Former Key West City Commissioner Tony Yaniz said the preemptapalooza is alarming Floridians and warned, “This may come right back and bite you.”