The Capitolist: In State’s Never-Ending Battle with Cities, Telecom Bill One Step Too Far
One of the biggest ongoing turf-wars in Tallahassee during the annual legislative session is the tug-of-war between the state legislature and city and county governments for the power to regulate businesses within each localized jurisdiction. In several cases, most notably vacation rentals and ridesharing, the state legislature may be perfectly justified in pre-empting abusive and burdensome regulations that single out specific business models.
But in the case of a telecom bill filed by Senator Travis Hutson, Senate Bill 596 and it’s House companion, HB687, is one step too far. The bill would strip city governments of much of their authority to regulate telecommunications infrastructure, limit maintenance fees local governments can collect, and according to the Florida Senate staff analysis, could even compromise safety:
For many local government authorities, the technology, pole attachments, and siting process contemplated in the bill are relatively new, and it may take time and experience to determine what is necessary to support the wireless infrastructure safely.
The real question here is why this bill is needed in the first place. Big telecom companies say the bill is necessary so that they can deploy modern equipment that can transmit data – including internet access – without having to wait on local governments to conduct all the necessary impact studies.
But if local citizens are clamoring for the latest in whiz-bang technology, and they don’t care whether or not there may be a safety or aesthetic issue when telecom companies bolt refrigerator-sized boxes on 60-foot tall telephone poles behind their homes, they can demand that their local government officials fast-track approval of the devices. And if citizens in a neighboring county decide they don’t want the unsightly contraptions buzzing away while their kids play beneath them, then why shouldn’t local leaders be able to decide that for themselves?
Florida has 412 cities, towns and villages spread across 67 counties. For companies that do business across the entire state of Florida, the often inconsistent patchwork of local laws and regulations can become too burdensome for business owners. That’s when the state legislature can and should step in with pre-emption laws that do away with home rule on those kinds of issues.
Right now, in fact, the Florida Legislature is considering bills that would install a consistent framework across the state so that innovative ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft can compete on a level playing field with traditional taxi companies.
Another pre-emption bill currently under consideration by the Florida Legislature would prohibit local governments from targeting vacation rental owners with regulations that don’t apply equally to all homeowners. Vacation rental advocates say that state pre-emption is necessary because instead of targeting unwanted behavior – like too many cars parked in front of a home, or loud music being played late into the night – local governments are instead targeting vacation rental owners to address unwanted behavior, while letting local residents (read: voters) get away with the very same behaviors.
In both of those cases, state pre-emption would apply laws and regulations fairly and consistently throughout the state. But that is not the case with this telecom bill, which merely strips authority from cities so that big telecom companies can fast track the rollout of their latest gizmos and bypass the local authorities who, understandably, should have a say in the matter.