Florida Senate Republicans target local emergency orders


  • Screen capture courtesy Walt Disney World/YouTube

Lawmakers continued to move forward Tuesday with efforts to limit local-government emergency orders, despite arguments by Democrats that the proposals are a state overreach.

The Senate Military and Veterans Affairs, Space and Domestic Security Committee voted 4-3 along party lines to approve a bill (SB 1924) that sponsor Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said could be merged into a larger package. That would be similar to a wide-ranging House approach (HB 7047).

After months of cities and counties taking steps such as requiring people to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, Diaz said his goal is to have local officials share decisions about issues such as closing businesses and imposing curfews and to “not allow for one person just to continue on to renew orders.”

The proposal would require majority votes of local governing bodies to extend emergency orders after 10 days and give the governor or the Legislature the power to invalidate the actions.

“One person too often during this pandemic has been able to make the decision to close that small business,” Diaz said in reference to mayors or county administrators. “And while some opinions may be that that small business shouldn't be open, it's dangerous, I don't think that we should be the arbiters of how someone can continue their livelihood during this pandemic.”

Counties or cities also would be required to prove their actions are “narrowly tailored,” serve a “compelling governmental interest” and are done with the “least intrusive means.”

Sen Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, said officials from her district have expressed concerns about the 10-day requirement in Diaz’ proposal, recalling that hurricanes Frances and Jeanne made landfall on Hutchinson Island three weeks apart in 2004.

Harrell, who voted for the bill, said a 10-day limit would have led to an “impossible” situation for local officials to meet in person and extend orders.

Tonnette Graham, associate director of public policy with the Florida Association of Counties, said concerns also remain about the state’s ability to invalidate orders issued by locally elected officials.

“We all realize and recognize that this piece of legislation has come about due to the unprecedented time that we're in now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but for other natural disasters this is also tying our hands,” Graham said.

Democrats pointed to different situations in the state as they opposed the proposal.

“Not only is every county different, every little subdivision in every city and county is different,” Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said. “And I don't think a cookie-cutter approach solves emergency issues in a particular location.”

Sen. Victor Torres, D-Kissimmee, said the mayors of Orlando and Orange County worked together to impose pandemic emergency rules such as mask requirements.

Similar proposals were included in a bill rolled out last week by the House Pandemics & Public Emergencies Committee.

The House plan would require local emergency orders to be extended in seven-day increments for a total duration of 42 days. Currently, such orders can be issued initially for seven days and extended indefinitely in seven-day increments.

The House bill also would require the governor to justify closing schools and businesses, require a state-owned stockpile of personal protective equipment, establish an Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund and direct the Department of Health to create a comprehensive public response guide for future crises.

The governor would also have to submit budget amendments when redirecting money from general revenue or the Budget Stabilization Fund, which is a state reserve. The House proposal also would provide the Legislature with the ability to line-item veto parts of emergency orders.

The House bill also would make the surgeon general, who is the secretary of the Department of Health, responsible for reporting the number of cases and deaths during health emergencies and require district medical examiners to assist the state in identifying and reporting deaths upon request.

A separate Senate bill (SB 2006), sponsored by Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, includes some elements that are similar to the House bill, such as a personal-protective equipment stockpile. The bill will be heard Thursday by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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