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Cities challenge protest law over budget power

Published: Nov. 16, 2021 at 4:22 PM EST
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Nine cities on Tuesday filed a lawsuit challenging part of a controversial new protest law that gives the governor and Cabinet the authority to override local governments’ decisions about police spending, arguing the measure unconstitutionally “strips municipalities of budget-setting authority.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis championed the bill (HB 1) during this spring’s legislative session as a way to crack down on violent protests. DeSantis rolled out the framework for the legislation amid nationwide protests last year that called attention to racial disparities in policing. The protests were sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.

The law, one of the legislative session’s most controversial issues, enhanced penalties and created new crimes in protests that turn violent. It has drawn a federal court challenge by a number of groups that allege it violates First Amendment rights and other constitutional protections. Calling it unconstitutionally “vague and overbroad,” Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in September blocked parts of the law from going into effect, prompting a state appeal.

The separate lawsuit filed Tuesday in Leon County circuit court focuses on a section of the law that sets up an appeal process when municipalities vote to decrease funding for police departments’ operating budgets.

Under the law, state attorneys or members of city councils or city commissions who vote against reductions can appeal the spending decisions to the state Administration Commission, which is made up of the governor and members of the Florida Cabinet.

“Once this appeal process has been triggered, the municipality loses control of its budget while the governor and Cabinet have full authority to revise the municipality’s police budget, line by line, behind closed doors, and without the level of community input widely guaranteed in the local budgeting process,” lawyers for Gainesville, Lake Worth Beach, Lauderhill, Miramar, North Bay Village, North Miami, North Miami Beach, Tallahassee and Wilton Manors wrote in Tuesday’s lawsuit.

The law “prescribes no legislative standards or limits to cabin the state executive’s revision of the local budget” and the rewritten budget is “binding on the local government, which must then figure out how to harmonize the state-mandated budget with actual local revenues and other obligations,” the cities argued.

At a bill-signing event on April 19, DeSantis defended the provision being challenged by the cities, which he said came in response to a nationwide movement to “defund the police” following Floyd’s death.

“This bill actually prevents against local government defunding law enforcement. We’ll be able to stop it at the state level,” DeSantis said at the time. “It’s an insane theory. It’s not going to be allowed to ever carry the day in the state of Florida.”

But the lawsuit said the measure “overrides the local legislative process” by giving the governor and Cabinet the ability to “re-appropriate local tax dollars” without any “guiding standards” or limitations, the lawsuit alleges.

“The governor’s statements show that he intends to use this tool whenever possible to further his own agenda and to remake local law enforcement budgets as he sees fit, with little regard for local processes and input,” the lawsuit said.

A dozen attorneys from the California-based Public Rights Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Community Justice Project and the Chicago-based Jenner & Block LLP firm are representing the cities in the case.

The law, which went into effect immediately after DeSantis signed it in April, has already had a “chilling effect” on local budgeting throughout Florida because, in part, local officials are uncertain about how far the state might go to rewrite cities’ budgets, according to the lawsuit.

“The consequences of HB 1′s commandeering process are so severe that municipalities do not want to trigger them,” the lawsuit alleged. “This untenable situation has injected uncertainty and insecurity into budgeting and planning, compromising municipalities’ ability to form reasonable expectations about the future.”

Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam called the law “a direct and sweeping attack against local control and local democracy.”

“It is actually an abuse of power,” Messam said during Tuesday’s news conference. “We will not stand for future attacks on local governance and our communities. It is all about home rule.”

The lawsuit argues that HB 1 violates the Florida Constitution on several grounds, including separation of powers. The cities also allege that the law creates an unconstitutional “unfunded mandate” by forcing cities to make expenditures without any financial support.

“By making the local budgeting subject to unilateral revision by the governor and Cabinet, HB 1 utterly disregards Florida’s strict separation-of-powers principles and directly threatens the core home rule authority guaranteed to all plaintiffs by the Florida Constitution, statute and their charters,” the lawsuit said.

The cities argued that police departments’ budgets can fluctuate due to economic conditions, purchases of equipment such as body cameras or pension and retirement changes. In addition, police-department budgets recently received a one-time boost through federal pandemic stimulus funds.

But the law doesn’t take those situations into account, and it lacks clarity on what local officials can do --- if anything --- once the state nixes their budget actions.

“We know there’s no appeal process within HB 1 itself. It seems, as drafted, that once the administration makes a decision, that that decision is final. There really is no route for a city to take to be able to challenge the decision once it’s been made,” Southern Poverty Law Center lawyer Paul Chavez said Tuesday.

The law is “just silent” about how the administration commission will make decisions, Jonathan Miller, Public Rights Project legal director, said.

“So there, it is unfettered discretion and part of the basis for our challenge to the law is how much discretion the administration commission is given. They can override for any reason whatsoever, even if a city has the most sensible reason, unobjectionable reason, for diminishing the budget,” he said.

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