Key West votes to limit cruise ship passengers. Now legislators want to veto that vote. | Commentary

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Scott Maxwell, Orlando Sentinel
·4 min read
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The folks down in Key West have always welcomed tourists.

Drunk tourists. Half-naked tourists. Tourists who look like Ernest Hemingway.

Heck, as long as you have a wallet full of cash, residents of the Conch Republic are happy to pour you a rum runner, serve you a slice of key lime pie and crank up the Jimmy Buffett.

But last November, residents there decided they didn’t want so many tourists at one time.

Residents voted to limit the size of cruise ships that can dock on any given day — no ships with more than 1,300 passengers and no more than 1,500 passengers a day, no matter how many ships.

Simple enough, right? The city owns the port. The city should be able to decide how it wants to run the port.

Well, maybe that kind of common sense flies some places. But not in Florida. Here, legislators and their lobbyist buddies hate it when local voters pass their own laws.

So now, at the urging of those who make money off big ships, lawmakers have prepared a bill that would essentially override the vote in Key West and let legislators make rules for all the ports in Florida … even though the ports are independently run.

Basically, they want to strip port authorities of their authority.

If you’re wondering what business it is of politicians in Tallahassee to decide how citizens of Key West run their city, the answer is: None.

That was a point the leader of the Key West voter’s initiative politely made to legislators during a Senate transportation committee meeting last week.

“Our referendum in Key West was a pure expression of democracy,” said Arlo Haskell. “These were reasonable limits written by the people to protect the interests of the people and enacted by the people with a super-majority vote.”

Haskell said that when cruise lines flood the city of less than 25,000 people, they strain the infrastructure, prompt virus fears and create environmental concerns.

His starkest statistic: Haskell said cruise ship passengers account for 50% of the city’s tourists — but only 6% of the spending.

“Big ships don’t bring big money to Key West,” he said, “but they do bring big problems”

So Haskell made a cogent and sensible case … and it enraged legislators.

Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, could barely contain his disdain, mocking everything from the residents’ concerns to the number of people who voted in the election. (Haskell said Key West actually had a record turnout.)

South Florida Republican Ana Maria Rodriguez, wondered if dark money had funded the residents’ campaign. “Who funded the campaign?” she demanded.

The irony of Florida legislators — who roll around in dark money like pigs in slop — being offended by secret donations was rich. But Haskell replied that his campaign’s finances were an open book with most money coming from the people of Key West.

Democrat Shevrin Jones pounced as well, wondering if voters “were clear” about what they were voting on. (This is a popular argument in Tallahassee: Voters are too dumb to understand the issues). Jones also chastised the citizens for not cooperating better with the cruise industry.

“I’m playing devil’s advocate,” Jones said.

No, senator. You’re playing cruise-industry’s advocate. All of you were. And it was painfully obvious.

Listen, I like cruising. In fact, back before COVID — when the biggest health concern was catching a mild norovirus on the lido deck buffet — my wife and I cruised every year. We like locking our cell phones in the cabin safe and leaving the real world behind for a few days.

But you know what? The residents of Key West don’t give a flying flip what I think … any more than they do these hack politicians in Tallahassee.

Gullible lawmakers seemed to swallow the argument that cruise ships magically transform port communities into economic utopias where everyone prospers.

Right. Just look at Haiti. Or Jamaica.

The cruise industry backers told legislators that, if they let democracy run rampant in Key West, big business would frown upon Florida.

“You, as a state, want to have a very firm business-friendly stance,” said Laura DiBella, the director of the Florida Harbor Pilots Association.

Yeah, forget what the people who live here actually want. You guys have lobbyists to please.

One of the most interesting takes came from the Florida Ports Council — which represents ports throughout the state. A council exec said his group really disliked how Key West voted, but told legislators they had every right to do it. Why? Because it’s their port.

That, my friends, is intellectual honesty. Florida legislators should try it sometime.

Listen, if I was running the Key West initiative, I might’ve crafted the local rules differently. Instead of limiting ship size, which essentially blocks all major cruise lines from stopping, I might’ve just limited the number of passengers who could disembark on any given day.

But again, it doesn’t matter what I think. This is about residents of a city deciding what they want. And politicians up in Tallahassee should mind their own business.

“Legislators have to realize the people of Key West knows what’s best for the city of Key West,” Haskell said. “That seems like a simple argument anyone can understand about their own hometown.”