PHOTO COURTESY NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA Travis Hutson

Dubbing it the “Local Business Protection Act,” the Florida Senate on Thursday passed a controversial bill that could lead to businesses filing lawsuits against cities and counties.

Senators voted 22-14 to approve the measure, which would allow businesses to sue local governments if ordinances cause at least 15 percent losses of profits.

“I think we are one of the most pro-business states in the entire nation, and I think this bill goes a lot further to separate us from the pack,” sponsor Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, said.

Hutson this week made a series of changes to try to address opposition from cities and counties. But Senate critics said the measure could hamstring local officials from addressing problems in their communities and would drive up costs for cities and counties.

“Their money comes from one source — the taxpayers,” Sen. Victor Torres, D-Kissimmee, said. “It would be more appropriate to call this bill the right to sue the taxpayer act.”

The bill would apply to businesses that have been in operation for at least three years. It would allow them to file lawsuits seeking lost profits for seven years or the number of years the businesses have been in operation, whichever is less.

Changes that Hutson made this week included expanding a list of circumstances in which local governments could not be held liable. After the changes, cities and counties would be shielded from lawsuits about ordinances dealing with procurement and promoting economic competition. The bill already included exemptions for such things as ordinances that are needed to comply with state or federal laws or are related to the Florida Building Code or Florida Fire Prevention Code.

Also the changes included eliminating a proposed formula for amounts of attorney fees that cities and counties would have to pay if they lose lawsuits. After the change, the bill says judges “may award reasonable attorney fees and costs to the prevailing party.”

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, tried to add an exemption Thursday for ordinances dealing with affordable housing, but his proposal was rejected. Farmer pointed to the diversity of the state and said local governments need to be able to address problems.

“It’s just a continuation of the assault on home rule,” he said. “It’s a continuation on our local communities’ ability to really govern themselves in a way that’s best for them.”

But Hutson said the changes in the bill have given local governments “plenty of outs” and allows them to address issues.

The vote on the bill was nearly along party lines, with Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, crossing over to join Democrats in opposing it. A House version (HB 569) is pending in committees.

The bill had the backing of Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican, who said after the floor session that it could help stem “preemption” bills in the Legislature. Those bills involve the state taking power away from local governments on specific issues.

The Senate on Thursday also voted 28-8 to pass a related measure (SB 280) that includes requiring cities and counties to produce “business impact” estimates before passing ordinances. The House version of the bill (HB 403) has not been heard as the 60-day legislative session prepares to enter its fourth week.

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