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Bid To Overturn Key West Vote May Be Sinking

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – A controversial effort to overturn a vote by Key West residents restricting cruise ship operations is taking on water with the end of the legislative session on the horizon.

House sponsor Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, postponed consideration of the bill on the House floor Tuesday for the second consecutive day. With the session scheduled to end Friday, the postponement would make it procedurally difficult to take up the bill (SB 426), which passed the Senate last week.

Opponents of the bill were getting optimistic but were not ready to celebrate.

"The ports have seen a lot of ups and downs concerning this piece of legislation, so we will never say never," said Jessie Werner, spokeswoman for the Florida Ports Council. "But we can't see a path forward for this bill at this point."

Josh Aubuchon, a lobbyist for the group Florida Ports for Economic Independence, which has opposed the measure, also saw little chance of the bill moving forward.

"I wouldn't say it is buried in the ground just yet ... but I'm not getting a pulse," Aubuchon said Tuesday.

The announcement on the House floor that the bill was being postponed drew light applause. Democrats had lined up several proposed amendments, including one by Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, that sought to require Key West voters who cast ballots to be advised the election has been "rendered void."

Smith's proposal would have required a letter go out stating: "By the order of Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature, and despite voters' overwhelming approval at the ballot box, the state of Florida has determined this local ballot initiative or referendum null and void. Your vote on this local law is now void."

Key West voters in November approved limiting the size of ships and the number of passengers who can visit the city daily. The local vote was opposed by Caribe Nautical Services, which has spearheaded lobbying to upend the referendum.

Caribe Nautical Services Chairman John Wells told lawmakers in March the city's referendum hurts the cruise industry. Of 287 reservations in place for 2022 cruises, only 18 ships would meet the size criteria, he said.

Arlo Haskell, treasurer of the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships, told lawmakers to let lawsuits against his group's successful efforts play out before imposing new state rules. Haskell added that smaller cruise ship operators have already started to focus on Key West.

In a House committee, Roach argued the vote was pursued by residents trying to attract a different class of tourists to Key West, rather than on environmental issues, as backers of the referendum claimed.

The bill would prohibit local governments from restricting maritime commerce, including through prior ballot initiatives, in areas of "critical state concern." Of Florida's 15 communities with ports, Key West is the only one within a designated "area of critical state concern," a designation focused on environmentally sensitive areas.

On Monday, the Miami Herald reported that 11 companies owned by Mark Walsh, who owns the company running the Pier B cruise-ship dock behind Margaritaville Key West Resort and Marina, have donated nearly $1 million to the Friends of Ron DeSantis political committee backing the governor's re-election effort.

(©2021 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Jim Turner contributed to this report.)

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