MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida Governor Rick Scott waded into foreign policy on Tuesday and signed a bill banning local governments from contracting with companies doing business in Cuba or Syria, but acknowledged the law could not take effect without Washington’s approval.
The bill’s sponsors and strongest supporters are Cuban-American politicians from Miami who argue that Florida tax dollars should not be used to support dictatorships that oppress their people.
The Republican governor, whose campaign slogan was “Let’s Get to Work,” dismissed criticism from the Florida Chamber of Commerce and others who said the law could discourage foreign firms from investing in Florida.
He said that “principles matter” while conceding that 800,000 Floridians were still looking for work in the state. “We believe in freedom. That’s why we have bills like this,” Scott added.
The legislation, which is scheduled to take effect on July 1 but appears unenforceable for now, prohibits state and local governments from awarding contracts of $1 million or more to companies doing business with Cuba or Syria. Both nations are designated by the United States as state sponsors of terrorism.
It had broad support in the Republican-controlled Florida legislature despite warnings it is unconstitutional.
Miami-Dade County Attorney Robert Cuevas said in a March memo that federal law does not authorize states to enact such restrictions, and that federal law trumps state law on foreign policy matters. He advised county commissioners to ignore the new law.
Scott recognized as much in a signing statement issued on Tuesday, saying the new restrictions “will not go into effect unless and until Congress passes, and President Obama signs, a law permitting states to independently impose such sanctions against Cuba and Syria.”
Republican U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen later issued a statement disputing that Congressional approval was required before the law could be enforced.
“I believe the law isn’t contrary to federal law and is, therefore, effective. I don’t believe that further Congressional authorization is required,” said Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
A handful of groups supporting democracy for Syria were recognized at the bill-signing ceremony, but it was firmly focused on Cuba.
Florida is home to about 1.2 million Cuban-Americans and the ceremony took place at the Freedom Tower, a former newspaper building in downtown Miami that was used in the 1960s as a reception center for Cubans fleeing their homeland after former President Fidel Castro’s communist government took power.
Republican U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, also a Cuban-American, said the law would ensure that those who receive “blood money” from tyrants and murderers would not receive tax money from Floridians.
Republican U.S. Representative David Rivera said it would force companies to make a moral choice.
“You either do business with terrorist dictatorships or you can do business with the money and resources of the taxpayers of Florida. It’s one or the other, you choose,” said Rivera, a Cuban-American.
A 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo already prevents American firms from doing business with Cuba, and the United States has adopted a series of economic sanctions against Syria in the last eight years.
The pending Florida law would apply to foreign firms and their subsidiaries, and seemed aimed at Odebrecht USA, a U.S. subsidiary of Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.
The company’s U.S. subsidiary has won numerous construction, transportation and engineering contracts in Florida, including the American Airlines Arena and a performing arts center in Miami. It is bidding on a proposed $700 million hotel and office complex associated with the Miami airport.
The company has drawn criticism from Cuban exiles in Miami for its involvement in a major upgrade to the Cuban port of Mariel, near the capital Havana.
Manuel Marono, the Cuban-American mayor of the Miami suburb of Sweetwater and a driving force behind the new legislation, denied it would hurt employment in Florida, where the jobless rate of 9 percent stands above the national rate of 8.2 percent.
“The jobs are still going to get done, the projects are still going to get done,” Marono said. “It’s just going to get done by people that care about people.”
Reporting By Jane Sutton; Editing by Paul Simao