An update on the 2021 Florida Legislature

Florida's historic capitol building in Tallahassee.

If I had to describe the recently-completed session of the Florida Legislature, I would sum it up as preemption and more preemption, steps forward on climate adaptation and the Feds rescue Florida. Oh—and more kicking the can down the road on the issue of stopping climate change. Let’s take a look.

Preemption legislation is that which takes authority away from one governmental entity and grants it solely to another. There has been a flurry of such legislation in recent years, in many cases spurred by regulated industries that do not want to be restricted in their activities and have found sympathy from Florida’s Republican-led Legislature.

Of that related to energy, we saw multiple preemption bills passed, including those that would prohibit local governments from restricting gas stations or the use of natural gas. This is a response from the fossil fuel industry that sees restrictions coming on their products as we work to avoid the worst impacts of climate change by transitioning to renewable energy.

One preemption bill that passed could at first glance be viewed as pro-solar, but it is more properly viewed as pro monopoly utility. This one keeps counties from regulating the location and extent of massive fields of solar panels installed by utilities. While we do need these large scale solar projects, we should allow local people to have a say in their siting.  

An interesting and hard-fought preemption bill that passed was one that grants regulation of the Port of Key West back to the Legislature. This came after the residents of Key West voted to restrict the size of cruise ships visiting their port, which eliminated access by massive cruise ships that were documented to smother nearby coral reefs with sediment stirred-up by their deep draft. This common sense action by a community looking to protect its valuable natural resources was cast aside by the Legislature, with Key West residents crying foul after it was reported that nearly $1 million was donated to a political committee for the reelection of Gov. Ron Desantis by the owner of the most impacted cruise ship company. Yes—it’s the kind of thing that makes folks skeptical about the political process.

On more of energy and climate legislation, one bill that would have required Florida’s monopoly utilities to deliver a minimum amount of renewable energy—a so called renewable portfolio standard (RPS)—went nowhere. This keeps Florida as one of only a dozen states without an RPS. Another bill that would have allowed what are called power purchase agreements (a solar financing model that brings solar systems at no upfront cost) also did not advance, even though it was targeted at helping local school districts access solar. Both of these bills were strongly opposed by Florida’s monopoly electric utilities, with power purchase agreements that help entities go solar on their own being something they view as competition.

The scorecard on energy bills reinforces the fact that a majority of the Legislature continues to avoid dealing with the main cause of climate change—the burning of fossil fuels for energy. They did almost nothing that would accelerate the necessary transition to renewable energy. However, they are showing more willingness to fund adaptation—adjusting our communities to make them less vulnerable to flooding and sea level rise.

On the adaptation side of the climate change issue, the Legislature took a huge and very positive step forward. They established the Resilient Florida Grant Program to help fund local projects to elevate structures and to build flood control measures. This comes after years in which many legislators refused to even utter the words climate change. Unfortunately the Program is funded with $111 million taken from the state’s $400 million affordable housing fund, thus reducing the viability of this desperately-needed effort. The Legislature chose to put another $500 million in to fund continuation of the Grant Program, with that funding interestingly coming from the American Rescue Plan passed by the U.S. Congress.

As for legislation that also impacts water quality: A bill that would have helped to implement some of the recommendations of the governor’s Blue Green Algae Task Force did not move forward. This is especially disappointing because the Task Force considered these to be just first steps—steps that remain to be taken. The Legislature did eliminate the MCORES program of toll roads proposed to bisect some of the state’s best remaining natural areas, but repackaged two out of three of the toll roads to keep them moving forward. So that fight continues.

Finally, some better news on land preservation as $400million in funding was approved—the most ever—thanks to more Federal “rescue” funds helping with recovery from the pandemic. And a bill that would have made seawalls easy to install on our state’s sandy beaches fortunately did not pass.

In the end the session was a mixed bag as it usually is, but the failure to act on any water quality improvement bills and to continue to favor big utilities, big business and fossil fuel companies over Florida’s people and environment are particularly disappointing.

Christian Wagley

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