TALLAHASSEE — With the gulf oil spill beginning to reach land, political tensions in Florida rose Thursday as Gov. Charlie Crist said he may call a special legislative session to put a drilling ban on the November ballot, bucking Republican leaders.
"It would seem to me, at a minimum, giving the people a voice on this issue would be helpful," Crist told the Times/Herald after a meeting in Pensacola with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. "What I need to do is evaluate if a special session is needed, but it is something I am considering."
Crist also wrote to President Barack Obama Thursday, saying the state faced unprecedented environmental harm, and asking for a "$50 million disaster National Emergency Grant'' and disaster unemployment aid.
The idea of a special session for a constitutional amendment came from Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Democratic lawmakers who say voters should be asked whether they want to permanently end legislative efforts to open state waters to oil and gas exploration.
But the top two proponents of drilling — Dean Cannon and Mike Haridopolos — said a special session isn't needed. They took an aerial tour of the spill Thursday and said they will halt all talk of oil drilling — for now.
"At the very minimum, we are going to permanently table this issue," said Haridopolos, R-Indialantic, the incoming Senate president. "This is a game changer. Something like this has never happened in my lifetime. We're not focused on politics."
Haridopolos described the sight of the oozing oil spill ''just sobering. … We learned the hard way that, whether it be in Florida water or anywhere in the gulf, it can affect Florida."
Cannon, the next House speaker, spent the last year developing legislation to open Florida waters to oil and gas exploration three to 10 miles out. He said that he is willing to put the idea on hold but that there is no need for a special session because there is an "exacting ban in place'' already, referring to the federal moratorium on oil drilling within 125 miles of Florida shores.
Democrats have seized the crisis as an "I-told-you-so'' moment. Standing before pristine beaches in Miami Beach and St. Petersburg, Sen. Dan Gelber, a candidate for attorney general, and Reps. Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg and Keith Fitzgerald of Sarasota said a constitutional amendment is needed to protect Florida from future Legislatures. It would ban drilling and oil extraction under Florida waters, which extend to 10 miles out.
"I believe there are millions of Floridians who, as they watch the horror unfolding … want the state government to say, 'Stop it, we don't want it here, we don't want it anymore,' " Gelber said.
Sink, who has been surveying the damage and meeting with federal officials, echoed the call, saying, "If you see it, as I did, all you can think about is what if we had been drilling three miles out and this happened?"
Cannon said there are other lessons from the spill, including lack of state control over drilling. The troubled well is in federal water under a lease Florida has no say over.
In a letter to the Obama administration, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and other attorneys general urged the federal government to coordinate efforts for legal action if those responsible for the damage don't pay the costs.
Herald reporter Jim Wyss, Times/Herald reporter Lee Logan, Katie Sanders of the St. Petersburg Times and Sara Kennedy of the Bradenton Herald contributed to this report.