Behind the News, Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation

The Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation is back!

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The Florida Legislature is halfway through its annual session and, as the maxim goes, “no man’s life, liberty or property is safe while the (Florida) Legislature is in session.” (Thanks, Mark Twain!)

I would add “no man’s sanity is safe either.”

The main word this session is “deregulation.” From suspending impact fees to giving telephone and power companies carte blanche over our pocketbooks, Florida’s politicians are bending backwards to try and appease business interests in the hopes of turning around our desperate economic situation. At least that’s the party line; the real reason could be opportunism.

Luckily, several journalists are reporting on these important bills, including Howard Troxler for the St. Petersburg Times. WMNF’s Rob Lorei interviewed Troxler yesterday for his “Radioactivity” program and I highly recommend downloading the podcast (it’s not available yet, but keep looking). Even as reporters’ ranks dwindle, some good work is coming out of the state’s major papers on these topics.

But what I don’t hear a lot about are these little bills that may not affect all Floridians, but could make lives miserable for a certain few. These are bills filed by legislators who missed the boat on real reforms and instead throw out politically-charged manifestos intended to get them re-elected. Or in some cases, perhaps these politicians are just insane.

Last year, while working at Creative Loafing, I profiled a number of a bills that just defied logic. At the top of my list was the law banning Truck Nutz. In fact, I rated all the other pieces of ridiculous legislation with one to five “Truck Nutz.” The law requiring the right amount of TP in public restrooms earned two “Nutz,” while the saggy pants bill earned five.

This year’s list of bills does not look much better. So, I’m bringing back the “Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation.” There’s no Truck Nutz bill this session, so I’m going with another absurd proposed law: Rep. Darryl Rouson’s “bong tax.” I won’t go into the specifics here — I reported on this bill right before my lay-off — but basically Rep. Rouson wants to put a heavy tax on all the headshops in the state. So, every bill I outline here will be rated from one “bong hit” to five, with five representing the most stoned bills coming out this session.

For the next week, I’ll post a few outrageous bills each day. This is an important time for citizens; next week, many legislators will go home for Easter and put many of these bills on hold until they return. This is your chance to send letters and e-mails letting your representative and tell them you don’t appreciate their precious (and paid-for) time wasted on stupid legislation. Yes, laws like the bong tax might get us on the Daily Show, but they don’t solve our state’s problems.

(Photo courtesy of whizchickenonabun/Flickr)

Behind the News

Developers lobby to dispute county impact fees

There’s an oft-used addage in community activism thrown out by pessimistic folks of both political persuasions: “You can’t fight City Hall.” This nugget of civil wisdom comes from the belief that taking on your city government is cumbersome, complicated, tiring and, ultimately, expensive.

After all, city governments seem to have a limitless supply of money to throw at any lawsuit. It’s money from taxpayers, and by extension, money from the person seeking justice. In short, they get you coming and going.

But I think there is an even better truism for 21st century community activism: “You can’t fight Big Business, not even City Hall.” My reasoning? For as much money as a city can throw at a lawsuit, Big Business seems to throw even more and it sticks better. In Florida, I’m specifically refering to developers. Any local community activist knows that developers and their lawyers not only spend big bucks on any challenge to their plans, but they buy politicians as well.

This is why House Bill 227 is a real problem for community activists. Sponsored by four House representatives (including local Rep. Ed Hooper from Clearwater), HB 227 (SB 580 in the Senate) seeks to allow developers to challenge impact fees imposed by local governments.

What are impact fees? They are imposed by local governments to hold developers partially responsible for the infrustructure needs brought on by the developer’s project. Impact fees typically go to building or widening roads, installing more traffic lights and sometimes building a school. Community activists and governments see the fees as promoting smart growth. Some developers see it as unnecessary taxation.

Most county governments have some sort of impact fee, though many times the amount has lagged behind present-day costs. So, during the nationwide housing boom, many counties raised their impact fees. Some developers have sued.

In these legal challenges, HB 227 would put more of a burden on city governments to prove their impact fee assessments are correct. It gets a little complicated, but the Florida League of Cities has a good overview:

SB 580 (Haridopolos), HB 227 (Aubuchon) change the burden of proof in a legal challenge to impact fees and remove any judicial deference to the local government’s decision. The bills were amended in committee to provide that the government has the burden of proof in an impact fee challenge.

An impact fee ordinance is a legislative decision that should be accorded the same level of deference given other legislative decisions – including decisions of the state legislature to impose fees and taxes. The change proposed by these bills means that even if reasonable minds could differ about the wisdom of the legislative decision, the city could lose the challenge. Neither bill proposes to change the burden of proof with respect to any fees or tax levied by the State of Florida, or any permit conditions imposed by the State of Florida or its agencies – all of which are legislative decisions.

But HB 227 isn’t the only bill involving impact fees moving through the Florida Legislature. SB 630 wants to put an outright moratorium on impact fees, something Hillsborough County is already looking at. For more on the complete idiocy of that move, read Mariella Smith’s recent blog post: “Your county’s solution to the housing glut: more houses.”