Bill to overturn Key West cruise limits advances

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Key West Florida port [Credit: Stuart Monk/Shutterstock.com]
A lone cruise ship docked in Key West in April. Photo Credit: Stuart Monk/Shutterstock.com

The battle for cruising in Florida's southernmost city continues, after a rollercoaster of a week over the decision by Key West voters in November to limit cruise ship visits. 

A bill to overturn measures Key West voters approved to cap the number of cruise passengers allowed ashore daily, ban ships that carry more than 1,300 people from docking and prioritize ships based on their health and environmental records was passed by Florida's state Senate on April 23, in a 25-14 vote. 

That bill, submitted in January by republican Sen. Jim Boyd, of Bradenton, near Tampa, sought to overturn the measures with legislation that would not allow local governments to regulate Florida seaport commerce. 

However, Boyd's bill seemed to die in the Florida House on April 27 after a Miami Herald report revealed that Key West billionaire developer Mark Walsh, owner of one of the privately owned cruise ship piers in Key West and a staunch opponent of the referendums, had recently donated $995,000 to Gov. Ron DeSantis' political committee and when proposed amendments to the bill would have expanded its scope to all Florida seaports, in addition to other amendments.

With the bill deemed dead in the House, Boyd introduced it as an amendment to a 38-page unrelated state Senate transportation bill (SB 1194) that passed both the Senate and House and says that "any local ballot initiative or referendum may not restrict maritime commerce" at any one of Florida's 15 deep-water ports. The amendment also voids any preexisting referendum, thus nullifying the Key West ones. 

The bill now heads to DeSantis' desk, overshadowed by the Walsh donations. 

"It's totally a conflict of interest, and this is absolutely the swamp, that we are up to our necks in,'' said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, according to Florida Keys News. "The fact that someone can make a $1 million contribution to the governor to ensure that he will sign this bill into law is a disgrace."

The article also says that Boyd's district is home to hotel properties owned by Walsh. 

Defenders of the bill to overturn the Key West vote said that it is elitist and would only allow in smaller ships that cost more. Florida Keys News reported that Rep. Spencer Roach, a Republican from North Fort Myers and the House sponsor of the bill, defended the amendment and said the referendum was backed by "a cabal of wealthy landowners in Key West that don't want what they consider cruise ship riffraff walking down their pier."

Voters in Key West, including mayor Teri Johnston, are holding out hope that the governor will veto the legislation. 

"The people making this legislation haven't been here," said Johnston, according to the Florida Phoenix, about Boyd and Roach, neither of whose districts encompass any part of the Key. "They have no idea how important the environment of the Keys is to us and our economy."

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