With eye on Key West, Florida Senate narrows local ports plan

Florida lawmakers continued Wednesday to narrow an effort to overturn a decision by Key West voters last year that placed restrictions on cruise ships docking at the city’s port.

The Senate Transportation Committee backed a revised bill (SB 426) that initially sought to block local governments from enacting rules on port operations statewide.

The revised bill approved Thursday in a 6-2 vote would limit a state "pre-emption" of local regulations to cruise ship operations in municipal-run ports in Pensacola, Panama City, Key West and St. Petersburg. Currently, only Key West has cruise ship operations.

The bill, opposed by Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Doral, and Sen. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, also would nullify past referendums. Rodriguez’s district includes Key West. The November vote in Key West limited the size and makeup of ships and the number of passengers that can visit the city daily.

Bill sponsor Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, acknowledged the legislation was initially devised because of the referendum in Key West and broadened to address potential economic impacts of local referendums at other ports in the state. 

"It may sound crazy, but let's say a group got together in the Jacksonville area and decided that all they wanted was green energy, and they didn't want gas-powered cars anymore," Boyd said. "So, guess what happens to the Jacksonville port? To my knowledge BMW, Toyota, I believe there may be others there, that's their main port of entry for the United States, or at least for the Southeast United States. So, it has broad economic implications on our state."

But the initial version of the bill was narrowed after concerns were raised by lawmakers and port officials from various parts of the state.

While the November referendum was started by a citizens group, lobbyist Joseph Salzverg, representing Key West, said city officials oppose the effort to "thwart" the will of their voters.

Michael Rubin, Florida Ports Council vice president of governmental affairs, said the revisions Wednesday were an improvement, but the bill is unnecessary. Rubin also expressed concern that the proposal could impact pending negotiations to bring cruise operations to Panama City.

"Panama City is considering entering into a contract with Viking cruise line for a single cruise vessel," Rubin said. "We're not sure what this does to those negotiations." 

Richard Pinsky, representing the Port of Palm Beach, said ports are already regulated by federal law and expressed concern that language in the bill regarding local referendums could impact ports run by special taxing districts, which could include the Port of Palm Beach, Port Canaveral or Port Fernandina.

Boyd said the intent isn’t to hurt the Port of Palm Beach and shouldn’t hinder cruise-ship talks in Panama City.

Caribe Nautical Services Chairman John Wells, a leading opponent of the Key West vote, has said the city’s referendum hurts the cruise industry. Of 287 reservations in place for 2022 cruises, only 18 ships would meet the size criteria. 

Josh Aubuchon, representing Florida Ports for Economic Independence, told the Senate committee the proposal is intended to simply overturn an election.

"Unlike other local regulations that burden private property, that say you can't paint your building this color or you can't do this, you can't do that with your own private property, these referenda are all about the city-owned port," Aubuchon said. "So, basically, we're telling the folks down in Key West, who voted for these referenda, they knew what they were voting on, that while they can elect their representatives there, that they can't control their own port that they own."

The House version of the bill (HB 267) was amended last week to also focus on the municipal-run ports in Pensacola, Panama City, Key West and St. Petersburg.