In their zeal to slash red tape this spring, Florida lawmakers are going so far that they that they have begun making even the state’s businesses nervous.
A committee in the Florida House of Representatives on Tuesday unveiled and approved a sweeping plan to eliminate state government oversight of more than two dozen professions and industries, from telemarketers and travel agents to home inspectors and auto mechanics.
The 281-page bill marks the most far-reaching attempt at deregulation yet undertaken in a year in which Republican leaders from Gov. Rick Scott to House Speaker Dean Cannon of Winter Park have repeatedly vowed to slash government bureaucracy and make Florida more accommodating to businesses.
But the measure immediately drew opposition from many of those same industries that boosters say they are attempting to help. More than 30 lobbyists and professionals from various industries testified before the House Business and Consumer Affairs Subcommittee, with the vast majority of them urging lawmakers to preserve the state’s regulatory schemes.
“Sometimes, regulation can be productive,” said Nancy Stewart, of the Federation of Manufactured Home Owners of Florida, told the committee, urging them to remove provisions from the bill that would abolish the state agency that oversees condominiums, time shares and mobile homes. “We all know that we have better behavior when someone’s watching.”
But boosters said the many regulations serve only to limit competition for the state’s existing businesses. Lifting those rules, they argued, will make it easier for new businesses to set up shop in Florida, ultimately, they hope, creating new jobs in a recession-wracked state still weighed down by a 12 percent unemployment rate.
“One of the beauties of our country is that an individual can sit in their living room and draw up a business plan and then go to work. But it’s sad to know that the moment they walk out that door, there are obstacles presented,” said Rep. Esteban Bovo, R-Hialeah, the committee chairman and sponsor of the legislation. “At the end of the day, the goal is to give people the power to start their own businesses and then let them move forward and compete.”
Even by the standards set this year in Tallahassee – where dozens of bills lifting one or regulation or another are rapidly advancing through the Legislature – the legislation introduced Tuesday is breathtaking.
One section, for instance, would abolish entirely Florida’s 23-year-old “Sellers of Travel” law. More than 6,500 travel agencies and independent agents are currently registered under the law, which was initially passed to protect consumers from unscrupulous agents peddling phony vacations.
Among other provisions, the law requires that a travel agency post a $50,000 surety bond that the state can use to refund travelers should they be sold a fraudulent vacation package or if the seller goes bankrupt before they take their trip.
Florida has received more than 13,000 complaints about sellers of travel over the last 5 years, according to Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, which administers the law.
Other sections, meanwhile, would cut state oversight of the time-share industry. No more, for instance, would government regulators review offering documents by time-share builders to ensure they included adequate disclosures for consumers or advertising materials to ensure they aren’t misleading.
It was enough to bring even Florida’s best-recognized employer – Walt Disney World – out in opposition.
Brian Bibeau, a lobbyist for the resort, pointed out that the state began regulating the time-share industry in the 1980s in order to weed out shady developers who gave the industry a seedy reputation that it has spent years attempting to shed.
Disney owns a time-share business, Disney Vacation Club, which is based in Central Florida and has properties in four states.
“Florida has what some people would call a colorful history of land fraud that goes back 100 years. Others would call it a lurid history of land fraud. The division [of condominiums, time shares and mobile homes] was put together to force the bad actors out of these areas of activity,” Bibeau said. “We think it’d be a terrible mistake for you all to deregulate those areas of the division. We strongly oppose it.”
Many other industries expressed similar concerns. The Florida Association of Professional Geologists said state licensing is vital to ensure that geologists have the appropriate technical skills and education levels. The Automotive Service Associations said the state’s regulatory scheme helps resolve complaints with consumers unhappy with car-repair jobs. The Florida Association of Realtors said home buyers need the assurance that comes with state oversight of home inspectors.
“Realtors believe it’s in the public interest to keep those folks accountable to the state and the public,” said Trey Price, a lobbyist for the Realtors association. The Florida Home Inspectors Council, too, testified in support of the state’s current regulatory scheme.
Not everyone, however, was critical. Allen Douglas, a lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which represents small businesses in the state, said many of the state’s myriad rules and regulations make it difficult for new businesses.
“A lot of these laws are legit. But a lot of them are to limit competition,” Douglas said.
Indeed, much of Tuesday’s three-hour hearing was consumed by dueling testimony from in-state and out-of-state interior designers over whether to lift licensing requirements for commercial interior designers.
The legislation ultimately advanced on a 10-5, party-line vote, with outnumbered Democratic lawmakers criticizing what they called “unbridled” derogation.
“I’m worried that the message we’re going to be sending is not that Florida is business friendly, but that Florida is the wild, wild west,” said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.