The Florida Chamber of Commerce is asking a federal appeals court to continue blocking a new law that would prevent state and local governments from contracting with firms that have business links to Cuba or Syria.
The chamber filed a brief Monday in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that says the law, passed this year by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott, would have “far-reaching implications and unintended consequences that will irreparably harm Florida businesses and the state’s economy.”
The state is appealing a Miami federal judge’s decision in June that granted a preliminary injunction against the law, which the judge said likely violated the U.S. Constitution.
Coral Gables-based Odebrecht Construction, Inc., filed the lawsuit because its Brazilian parent company has another subsidiary involved in the expansion of the Cuban port of Mariel — an affiliation that, under the new law, would prevent Odebrecht from bidding on government jobs in Florida.
In the brief, the chamber said the law would discourage foreign investment in the state and strain relations with Brazil and Canada. As an example, the chamber said it received a call from the Canadian ambassador to the United States about concerns that the law could affect Canadian companies that do business in Florida but also have operations in Cuba.
“If the Cuba Amendment (the law) is enforced, its impact will reverberate far beyond the borders of the Sunshine State,” the brief said. “Democratic foreign governments and their businesses will be reluctant to do business in Florida. These are the very foreign companies that Florida has worked so hard to attract.”
But in the appeal, the state disputed Odebrecht’s arguments that the law is an unconstitutional infringement on the federal government’s power to conduct foreign affairs. The United States has long placed trade sanctions against Castro-led Cuba.
“First, the people of Florida, through their elected representatives, have determined that the status quo is unacceptable,” the appeal said. “Second, although the federal Cuban sanctions regime is broad, it does … leave room for the state of Florida to legislatively control the expenditure of public procurement funds through proscriptions directed to entities doing business with Cuba. The federal scheme does not address this legitimate state concern.”
The law, which had strong support from Cuban-American lawmakers, passed the House and Senate with only one dissenting vote. Scott initially released a bill-signing letter that said the restrictions would not take effect until Congress passes a law allowing states to impose such sanctions. But after an outcry from Cuban-American lawmakers, he later said the state would move forward with the law.
In announcing in July that the state would appeal the preliminary injunction, Scott said the “Castro and Assad governments (in Cuba and Syria) are undeniably repressive, and it is important that Florida taxpayers do not support dictators that suppress freedom.”
Under the law, companies would be prevented from receiving state or local government contracts of $1 million or more if they do business in Cuba or Syria or are affiliated with firms that do business there. Odebrecht, which named the Florida Department of Transportation as the defendant in the case, has received contracts in the past on large-scale public projects, such as airport upgrades in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, according to a brief it filed in the appeal.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce is one of the most-influential groups in Tallahassee. But in filing its brief this week, the chamber went against Republican leaders and lawmakers who are often its political allies.
As a possible sign of the importance of the issue, one of the attorneys filing the brief for the chamber was former Florida Supreme Court Justice Stephen Grimes. Similarly, Odebrecht’s lawyers include former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero.
Also this week, a national telecommunications-industry group, the United States Telecom Association, filed a brief urging the appeals court to keep the preliminary injunction in place. It said, in part, that federal sanctions against Cuba include an exception for telecommunications companies — an exception that was not included in the state law.
The industry fears that the law would force telecommunications companies to stop doing business in some other countries or give up the right to get government contracts in Florida, according to its brief.
“The nation’s interest in having an effective telecommunications industry, able to operate around the world, providing vital services here and abroad, warrants exempting telecommunications from even the harshest sanctions regime,” the association’s brief said. “Exemptions of telecommunications from a sanctions regime may also reflect the fact that democratic movements tend to thrive in an atmosphere of free-flowing international communication.”
Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida