Both sides of Key West’s cruise ship debate descended April 14 on Tallahassee, where a final senate committee approved a bill that voids Key West’s vote to significantly reduce the number of large cruise ships that visit Key West.

Senate Bill 426, entitled “State Preemption of Seaport Regulations,” and its identical companion bill in the Florida House, will head next to the full floor of the state legislature for a final vote.

Key West Mayor Teri Johnston and 19 other supporters of the Safer Cleaner Ships Committee, including treasurer Arlo Haskell, boarded a chartered flight to the state capital early April 14 to implore the senate’s Rules Committee to vote against SB 426, which was filed by Sen. Jim Boyd from the Bradenton area.

Key West business owners Michael Halpern and Danny Hughes flew separately to Tallahassee to speak in support of the bill that prohibits the port of Key West from regulating the number, size and type of ships that can call there. The bill expressly prohibits “a local ballot initiative or referendum from restricting maritime commerce.”

Twenty Key West residents got up early April 14 to board a chartered flight to Tallahassee, where they spoke against the bill that would void their efforts to reduce large cruise ships in Key West. CONTRIBUTED

Sixty percent of Key West voters approved just such a ballot initiative in November 2020, calling for restrictions on the size of cruise ships and the number of people who can come ashore every day.

If approved by the full Legislature, Boyd’s bill will nullify that initiative despite impassioned pleas from more than a dozen Key West residents.

Halpern told the Rules Committee on April 14 that he represents legendary museums of Key West, including the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, Truman’s LIttle White House and the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, as well as businesses such as the Butterfly Boutique, “all of which have been severely damaged by the ban on cruise ships. 

“Make no mistake,” Halpern continued. “This referendum banned 95% of cruise ships from Key West. There are no cleaner, safer ships because the initiative banned the safest, cleanest ships, such as the Disney ships and the new Virgin Voyages cruise ships.”

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Halpern quoted some social media comments from Safer Cleaner Ships supporters, who said they wanted to see “more upscale shops, and a less crowded downtown to make room for better spending tourists rather than the lowest common denominator of tourism.”

“I say to this senate subcommittee,” Halpern continued. “There is no lowest common denominator when it comes to tourism in Florida. Nobody is more or less important  to Florida because of the income or assets they have.”

Mayor Teri Johnston told the committee that Key West is one of the most inclusive cities in the world and the goal is not to exclude any groups of people. Rather, she said, the intent is to provide a better quality of life and improved visitor experience for residents and overnight guests.

Johnston also said the city’s sales tax revenues have rebounded to 97% of 2019 levels.

“This was a voter initiative,” Johnston said. “This is their voice. I’m imploring you, please don’t turn a blind ear. This is democracy at its best.”

Arlo Haskell said the Key West committee “supports the governor’s call to lift the no-sail order on cruise ships. All we are saying is send us your smaller ships. The Great Florida Reef is on life support with 90% of it dead or dying. … I’m begging you, please don’t wreck the reef.”

After the committee voted favorably on Boyd’s bill, the Safer Cleaner Ships contingent headed to the governor’s mansion for a press conference asking Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto SB 426 if it passes the full legislature. 

Haskell said he was surprised by the Rules Committee’s vote, but posted on Facebook that their fight was not over.

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