TALLAHASSEE — Pressure is mounting for legislators to expand the special session next week to revamp Florida's laws to help ailing Panhandle residents recover from the financial hit of the oil disaster.
A committee of the Senate's leading Republicans and Democrats, along with Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, is urging Gov. Charlie Crist and the House to go beyond the debate over putting a constitutional amendment on the November ballot when they meet July 20-23, and include economic relief for thousands of businesses, individuals and governments.
"The urgency is that people are going bankrupt, or about to go bankrupt," Sink said Tuesday.
But House leaders continued to stonewall. They were convinced that Crist's call for the session to ban oil drilling in Florida waters was a self-serving political ploy designed to help him garner attention for his Senate bid.
"The situation in Northwest Florida deserves serious attention," said Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, in a prepared statement. Cannon is designated to be House speaker in 2011 and his Orlando-area district is land-locked and oil-free.
"Our job, and our intention, is to develop public policy that will actually help Floridians and improve the ever-changing situation on the ground," he continued. "In my opinion, we aren't going to be able to do that responsibly in a four-day photo-op session."
Crist said he is open to addressing economic issues but they were "not as time-sensitive" as meeting the Aug. 4 deadline to put an amendment on the ballot.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, hopes the Senate can persuade House leaders and the governor to see things differently.
"I don't think we should let politics stand in the way of the economic pain and suffering," he said. "What we're finding is a number of these issues really are very time-sensitive."
Gaetz was drawing up proposed changes to state law to streamline the claims process for oil spill victims, temporarily lower the property-tax burden and make it easier for the state to send BP the bill.
Gaetz chairs a Senate select committee that met for four hours in Pensacola on Monday hearing from economists, accountants, business organizations and government officials about the cascading economic effects the oil spill is having on the region. He agrees that despite these appeals, it is difficult for many Republicans to overcome their animosity for Crist, who left the party in April to run with no party affiliation.
"If the governor wants to have a policy debate about a constitutional ban on offshore drilling, that's probably a valid public policy debate," he said. "But I think the governor would have a greater chance to have the issue debated and discussed if he were willing to acknowledge the other real time-sensitive issues."
One issue Gaetz believes the Legislature should address next week is a plan to give property appraisers the right to revise the notices that come out in August for property taxes due in November in order to account for the decline in property values, or provide rebates to owners.
"There's no one I know that doesn't believe that property values in coastal Northwest Florida won't be affected by the oil spill," he said.
Sink agrees that legislators should modify the law to allow property tax appraisers to do what they have been allowed to do in hurricanes, and either re-value property or provide rebates.
Sink has also proposed requiring the claims forms to be written in plain language and establishing a time line for claims decisions to be completed and a dispute process for how to mediate disagreements.