A state legislator’s attempt to nullify a Key West referendum on cruise ships moved a step closer to passage on March 10.

A majority of Key West voters elected in November to reduce Key West’s pre-pandemic cruise ship industry by about 92%, compared to pre-pandemic port visits.

With ballots as their voices, those voters — about 62% of them —  told city lawmakers to change the city’s charter so it would prohibit cruise ships that carry more than 1,300 total people, not just passengers, from docking in Key West. The charter change would also mean no more than 1,500 people can come ashore in Key West on a given day and gives docking priority to ships with the best environmental records.

Then the Florida legislature convened on March 2 and Sen. Jim Boyd, a Republican from Bradenton, filed Senate Bill 426, which would nullify the Key West charter changes by taking away port cities’ authority to turn away certain ships, based on size, passenger count or other characteristics.

Boyd’s bill also expressly nullifies any local referendum or ballot initiative to change a city’s port operations. The bill applies to four of Florida’s 15 ports that are owned by cities and not counties — Key West, Pensacola, Panama City and St. Petersburg.

Senate Bill 426 states, “a local government may not restrict or regulate commerce in the seaports of this state … including, but not limited to, regulating or restricting a vessel’s type or size, source or type of cargo, or number, origin, or nationality of passengers. All such matters are expressly preempted to the state.”

The bill also specifies, “A local ballot initiative or referendum may not restrict maritime commerce in the seaports of this state, including, but not limited to, restricting such commerce based on any of the following: 1. Vessel type, size, number, or capacity. 2. Number, origin, nationality, embarkation, or disembarkation of passengers or crew or their entry into this state or any local jurisdiction. 3. Source, type, loading, or unloading of cargo. 4. Environmental or health records of a particular vessel or vessel line. (b) Any local ballot initiative or referendum, or any local law, charter amendment, ordinance, resolution, regulation, or policy adopted in a local ballot initiative or referendum, in violation of this subsection which was adopted before, on, or after the effective date of this act is prohibited and void.”

State Sen. Jim Boyd of Bradenton discusses his proposed bill to nullify Key West’s cruise ship limitations during Wednesday’s senate transportation committee meeting in Tallahassee.

The Florida senate transportation committee on Wednesday morning passed Senate Bill 426 with a 5-2 vote. Senator Keith Perry was absent for the vote. 

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Florida Keys state Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, who sits on the transportation committee, voted against the bill after it was made clear the bill would pass the committee based on members’ comments before the vote.

Two more Senate committees and two state House committees must approve the bill before it goes to the full floor of the state congress for a final vote. 

Sen. Rodriguez told the Keys Weekly on March 9, the day before the committee meeting, “I don’t know for certain that this bill stems from the Key West vote. It’s possible that’s what prompted Senator Boyd to file it, but I’m still going to give it my all with regard to my amendment.”

Florida Keys state Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez voted against the bill that would void Key West’s cruise ship reductions during Wednesday’s senate transportation committee meeting. The committee approved the bill, which now continues through the legislative process.

Rodriguez was hoping to get support for an amendment she had proposed that would have exempted Key West due to its designation as an Area of Critical State Concern. But Rodriguez withdrew her proposed amendment before the vote on March 10.

Lawmakers and other officials acknowledged during Wednesday’s transportation committee meeting that the bill was expressly written to void Key West voters’ attempt to limit cruise ships in their community.

“It’s no secret that this was because of what was going on in Key West,” Sen. Boyd testified at Wednesday’s meeting. 

Warren Husband of the Florida Harbor Pilots Association spoke in support of Boyd’s bill, saying, “The state is investing millions in these ports based on economic projections of traffic in those ports. A municipal government that goes rogue could jeopardize those plans.”

Joseph Salzberg, a lobbyist representing the City of Key West, spoke against the bill, saying “The city is opposed to any legislation that attempts to thwart the direction of its voters. The city has to oppose anything that infringes on a nearly 200-year history of local port operation.”

Key West business owner Danny Hughes flew to Tallahassee to speak in favor of the bill. No one from the Safer Cleaner Ships Committee, which led the Key West voter referendum to limit cruise ships, spoke at the meeting. But opposition did come from the Surfrider Foundation and from lobbyist Josh Aubuchon of Florida Ports for Economic Independence.

The Key West City Commission and the Islamorada Village Council have passed resolutions opposing SB 426 and its identical companion bill in the state House of Representatives, House Bill 267, filed by State Rep. Spencer Roach, a Republican from the Fort Myers area. 

Monroe County Commissioner Craig Cates, also a Republican, is expected to bring forth a similar resolution opposing the bills at the next county commission meeting.

“It’s been made very clear that the bill is targeting Key West and that they’re trying to punish Key West specifically,” said Arlo Haskell, treasurer of the Safer Cleaner Ships Committee. “They’re trying to undo the Key West vote. It’s ripping control away from the voters and the city.”

Haskell called the Wednesday vote “a huge test for Senator Rodriguez. Does she represent the people of the Florida Keys or does she represent the cruise industry? It’s infuriating to see elected state officials disregard the will of a majority of voters.”

Who supports SB 426?

In addition to Hughes, who traveled to Tallahassee to support SB 426, Key West businessmen Ed Swift, CEO of Historic Tours of America, and John Wells, founder of Caribe Nautical ships’ agents, are two outspoken supporters of the port preemption bills.

Both were quoted by FloridaPolitics.com on March 3 as supporting it. 

An independently owned website, FloridaPolitics.com quoted Wells and Swift in its coverage of the cruise ship preemption bill on March 3:

“A coalition of trade associations and businesses going by the name ‘Keep Florida’s Economy Sailing’ launched (March 2) and called on the Legislature to pass bills that would protect commerce at Florida seaports.

“…Keep Florida’s Economy Sailing members say (the bills) would protect seaports from potential economic harm….

“‘Florida’s ports are major economic drivers and have become global hubs for maritime commerce, and Senate Bill 426 (and its counterpart House Bill 267) are a vital protection for our deep-water ports in Florida,’ said John Wells, chair of Caribe Nautical Services and a native Key Wester. ‘Rightfully so, we have heard concerns that Key West’s referendums could open a Pandora’s box that threatens the continued success of our ports. That is why maritime commerce should be responsibly regulated by the state. I thank Sen. (Jim) Boyd and Rep. (Spencer) Roach for their good bills and look forward to supporting them this session.’

“Other coalition members include the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, Florida Harbor Pilots Association and Historic Tours of America.

“Representatives from each group harped on the importance of passing the preemption,” FloridaPolitics.com writes. “FRLA President Carol Dover said the Key West ordinance threatens the livelihoods of hospitality workers in port areas. Florida Harbor Pilots Association president Ben Borgie said the proposal ‘empowers the ports to operate unencumbered’ by ordinances that ‘make port operations unpredictable and threaten port investments.’

“And Historic Tours of America president Edwin Swift III said the bills could spare his industry further damage as it recovers from the ‘brutal wake-up call’ of the pandemic.”

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