Port preemption bill goes to Florida Senate

An effort to overturn a 2020 vote in Key West that limited cruise ship operations is ready to go before the full Senate.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – An effort to overturn a 2020 vote in Key West that limited cruise ship operations is ready to go before the full Senate.

The Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday approved the measure (SB 426), which would apply to municipal-run ports in Key West, Pensacola, Panama City and St. Petersburg and prohibit past and future local referendums that affect cruise ship operations.

Key West Mayor Teri Johnston, who was joined in Tallahassee by a group of island residents, objected to the bill.

“This was a voter initiative,” Johnston told the committee. “We are actually hearing from the people. This is their voice, in their words, from the people that are most impacted.”

Key West approved three referendums last year pushing for more environmentally-friendly cruise ships and limiting the size and number of cruise ships that could dock in its port. The goal was to prevent large ships from kicking up sediment and harming coral reefs.

“Everybody who lives in the Florida Keys over the past year without the large cruise ships noticed the waters, like a miracle, get clearer,” said Arlo Haskell, with the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships.

Of the municipal-run ports, only Key West has cruise ship operations, though negotiations are underway to bring cruise ships to Panama City.

Bill sponsor Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said he’s seen “no scientifically based study” suggesting reefs are being destroyed by cruise ships.

“Ironically, the Key West initiatives that were passed would allow smaller cruise ships in the harbor that kick up even more sand than the new larger ships,” Boyd said. “By contrast, the larger, newer ships have more efficient propulsion systems and typically rely less on powerful thrusters, which are located closer to the waterline.”

Boyd argues limiting how locals can regulate their ports now will prevent local restrictions that could potentially harm the state as a whole in the future.

“Fifty percent of our oil for the state of Florida comes through the port of Tampa. So if a group got together and banned that as a commodity that would come into our port, imagine what that would do not just to the economy but to statewide transportation,” Boyd said.

Democrats criticized the proposal because it would preempt the local law.

“I still have an issue with the idea that we are here in Tallahassee,” said Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach. “Many of us don’t live in the Keys, and we would work to remove provisions that the people who live in that particular area have decided were necessary.”

The House version of the bill (HB 267) has drawn support from two subcommittees and needs approval from the Commerce Committee before it could go to the full House. So far, the governor has been silent on the legislation.