DeSantis seeks to clip local authority as lawmakers examine his emergency powers


For the first time in U.S. history, all 50 states are under simultaneous emergency declarations that accord varying degrees of unilateral authority to governors.

Florida has been in a state of emergency since March 9, 2020, meaning it has essentially been under the one-man rule of Gov. Ron DeSantis for nearly a year.

Under emergency powers, DeSantis implemented a statewide stay-at-home order in April, launched reopening plans in May and, in September, lifted all state-level restrictions and limited local governments’ capacity to shut down businesses for violating local COVID-19 protocols.

However, local orders to mitigate COVID-19 outbreaks, including operating hour restrictions, curfews and other preventative measures, are in place in municipalities across the state.

DeSantis maintains the state’s chief executive’s authority should be further expanded, not by addition but by subtraction, or diminishment, of local governments’ emergency powers, especially when it comes to curfews.

“There needs to be a limited duration and it should require some type of legislative sanction,” he said Tuesday in Hialeah where a Miami-Dade County midnight-to-6 a.m. curfew is in effect.

State lawmakers will “look at local government pandemic powers” during the 60-day 2021 legislative session that begins Tuesday, DeSantis said, adding, “Stay tuned.”

At least 300 bills have been filed in more than 40 state legislatures proposing changes to state emergency declaration laws, according to Congressional Quarterly/Fiscal Note. Most address durations and seek to require approval by legislatures to extend.

But about 40 bills in a dozen states seek to cap local government emergency powers. Missouri lawmakers are pondering at least six proposed bills that would make it more difficult for city and state officials to close businesses or religious services during a public health emergency.

Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Miami, who has filed 2021 measures seeking to preempt local governments from regulating vacation rentals and imposing transparency requirements on spending by cities and counties, is among Republican lawmakers expected to file legislation clipping their emergency powers.

DeSantis said when coronavirus emerged in Florida last March, “We thought it was potentially very serious, but I don't think anyone at that time thought that there would just be these forever restrictions. That's really not the way anything has ever worked in the past before.”

The state has also never been under the near-total rule of one man for such an extended time before and that — the chief executive’s authority — will also get a comprehensive review orchestrated by Senate Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Response chair Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has said he will file a bill requiring at least one other member of the Florida Cabinet to sign off on emergency declarations and orders.

DeSantis said it was “appropriate” for lawmakers to assess the chief executive’s emergency powers, but noted lawmakers always have the capacity to intervene.

”As the governor, the Legislature can come in and they actually can terminate anything that the governor does, and I think that's absolutely appropriate,” DeSantis said. “That should be the case.”

Lawmakers have not done so because he's been “very judicious” in issuing executive orders during the emergency, he said

DeSantis said there are no plans to lift Florida’s emergency declaration anytime soon.

“The only emergency I use is to get the reimbursement from FEMA,” he said. “If I don’t have that, then all the stuff we do, we don’t get reimbursement to the state, which obviously, we want from a perspective of just fiscally recouping any losses that we’re doing. But that’s the only, I think, valid reason to have any of that in place at this time.”

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