TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House abruptly adjourned a special legislative session after 49 minutes Tuesday, rejecting Gov. Charlie Crist's proposal to let voters place a permanent ban on offshore drilling in the Florida Constitution.
The party-line vote to adjourn the session was 67 to 44, with Republicans supporting adjournment and Democrats in favor of continuing the debate.
A heckler from the visitors' gallery shouted that all 67 were "in the pocket of BP."
The Senate adjourned at 2:20 p.m. with an 18-16 vote.
A fired-up Gov. Charlie Crist later unloaded on the GOP-led Legislature.
"I can't believe the Legislature has shirked their duty so badly," he said. Of the voters, who would decide whether to add the proposed amendment to the constitution: "They wouldn't even trust them."
He kept going: "How arrogant can a Legislature be? … It's embarrassing to watch. … It is clearly the exercise of arrogance of power. … I call them the do-nothing Legislature."
Crist said he won't call the Legislature back in for another session, because they already had their chance and "punted." He said he would consider economic relief that lawmakers say they will pass in early September. He also claimed that "no one asked" him to add other topics to the call, contrary to what Senate President Jeff Atwater said during today's short session.
House Speaker Larry Cretul began the special session at 12:02 p.m. and promptly rejected Gov. Charlie Crist's call for a referendum to ban oil drilling. Instead, Cretul criticized the nonpartisan governor for his "surprise proclamation" calling lawmakers back to Tallahassee on short notice.
"The fact remains that he has called us here at the last possible moment to consider a constitutional amendment for which he never proposed any language and permitted far too little time for reflection and review," Cretul told the House and a visitor gallery packed with drilling protesters. "This is a terrible way to propose constitutional changes."
Cretul said he and Senate President Jeff Atwater are working on a longer special session, most likely in September, to consider a package of economic recovery measures in response to the Deepwater Horizon blowout.
"Simple solutions designed to produce sound bites, photo ops and political attacks will do nothing to help Floridians in need of recovery," Cretul said.
Cretul formed six "work groups" of House members to study various aspects of the spill response and to propose "meaningful legislative solutions, if possible," by the end of August. The six work groups are all being led by junior Republican members, including three freshmen members. None of the six is from the Panhandle, the area experiencing the most severe economic hardships so far.
The vote to end the session was, in effect, the vote on whether voters should be given the chance to ban drilling.
Four Republicans joined with 40 Democrats. They were Reps. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa; Marcelo Llorente, R-Miami; Julio Robaina, R-Miami; and Juan Zapata, R-Miami. One Democrat, Rep. Leonard Bembry of Greenville, sided with the Republican majority.
It looked for a while as though the amendment might still get a hearing in the Senate. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, an ally of Crist, said he planned to move to consider the constitutional drilling ban that was the ostensible focus of this special session. But the adjournment came before he had the chance.
Such a move would have been symbolic at best. Even if the Senate had passed it, the proposal could not have gone on the ballot without the consent of the House. For the House, the session was over. Crist would have to call the Legislature into session again for the amendment to remain in play.
Fasano conceded he probably lacked the votes to pass the amendment. Several Democrats are absent from today's proceedings: Democratic Sens. Frederica Wilson, Nan Rich and Larcenia Bullard. Also Republicans Durell Peaden and Rudy Garcia are also gone, two moderates who might consider voting for the measure.
Sen. Alex Villalobos, the Miami Republican who sponsored the oil drilling ban: "I told the members of the Senate that I am ready willing and able to present my arguments, and I think I would prevail. The House chose to leave. I mean, how disappointing is that?"
Villalobos said he simply doesn't trust the Legislature to keep the current ban intact: "It passed the House last session, and but for a few senators over here, it would have passed (here) also."
How will the average Floridian look on today's events? "I think people are going to be pissed off. They expected to have an opportunity to vote on their fate."
A clearly frustrated Senate President Jeff Atwater said he tried again and again to get House Speaker Larry Cretul or Gov. Charlie Crist to expand the call to include tangible issues such as economic relief. "I've been asking the governor, I've been asking the speaker for weeks — let us have an agenda that nobody's going to walk out on. Give us an agenda that dares somebody to walk out on it."
Such a move, he said, would essentially dare the House to leave when real oil spill relief is at play. He called the Senate "the on chamber that's been trying to get this done."
Atwater said he is happy to come back at any time — even before the Aug. 4 deadline for new ballot measures -- and pass both economic relief and a constitutional ban. But in a subsequent press conference, Crist said he doesn't plan to call the Legislature back. So right now it looks like we're headed back in about September.
"Now, to have this kind of parade going on, this circus act going on — it's time to address real issues," he said.
Earlier in the day, dozens of oil drilling opponents packed the Cabinet room in hopes of influencing the outcome.
Wearing green "Let the people vote" stickers, the drilling foes demanded that the Legislature agree with Gov. Charlie Crist and put a proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 2 ballot permanently banning near-shore drilling. But the session was expected to sputter to a quick end in the face of overwhelming House resistance to taking up the issue.
"Let the people vote!" the protesters chanted loudly. Several squeezed their way through the crowd to shake Crist's hand and personally thank him for his efforts.
As eight TV cameras trained on him, Crist stepped to the podium and plastered one of the stickers on his lapel. Introduced by Manley Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the nonpartisan governor again insisted that the Republican-controlled Legislature put the question on the ballot.
"The people should be heard on this issue," Crist said. "You have the right to speak and be heard on this important issue, and out of respect for you, the people, the members of the House and Senate should permit that."
Ed Berry, owner of a natural food store, Smoothie bar and massage therapy business in coastal Walton County, was among those who rode the bus for two-plus hours to make his voice heard. Like others who filled the Cabinet room, Berry agrees with Crist and wants a chance to register his disapproval of offshore drilling.
''Big Oil's destroying our communities. It's destroying our lives," Berry said. "Fifteen years of hard work is going down the drain."
The protesters converged in the courtyard between the old and new capitols and planned to sit in the visitors' galleries to watch the House and Senate in session Tuesday afternoon.
Before the session opened, Cretul released a prepared statement in which he said: "As a coequal branch of government, it is our prerogative to consider the governor's suggestion and to dispose of it in the manner that we see fit." He labeled the oil spill "a deep sea monster that we've never met before."
Cretul suggested the Legislature should consider whether to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2012 — "in the calm after the crisis."
Sink calls for economic relief
Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink was on hand at the Capital as the session began, and pulled no punches Tuesday as she blasted Florida legislators for being out of touch with Floridians and warned that their inaction on economic relief for Northwest Florida will cost taxpayers in the long run.
"Our economy needs speed and immediate measures to boost tourism in Northwest Florida or the taxpayers are going to be left with a decades-long bill from businesses that are going bankrupt and residents that may leave and never be able to afford to come back,'' Sink said.
"Instead of action, the tone deaf Florida Legislature has been twiddling their thumbs. It was only after the governor called for a special session — a special session that I asked for months ago – that some of them started to pay attention,'' she said. She noted Sen. Don Gaetz's hearing in Pensacola last week was the first attempt by lawmakers to hear from local government officials, business groups and citizens on the impact the oil disaster was having on the local economy.
"But it seems that many of the legislators are paying attention for the wrong reasons,'' she said. "Today at noon, I expect to see the culmination of the complete failure of the Florida Legislature to be in tune with what's going on the real world of Florida. In the same chamber, where House Republicans shoved through a proposal in just a few days to open state waters to oil drilling, those same Republicans will stand at their desks to claim they don't have enough time.
"They don't have enough time for small business owners in Northwest Florida. They don't have enough time for the oystermen or the bait tackle shop owner or the countless other working class folks that call Northwest Florida home.''
Sink, a Democratic candidate for governor, said that for more than a month she has been calling for incentives "that only the Florida Legislature can enact" and when the House speaker and Senate president hadn't filed any legislation to help them, she wrote them a letter calling for changes to streamline and speed up the claims process and provide economic relief.
"No surprise it hasn't been answered,'' she said. She then introduced Jeff Elbert, a souvenir shop owner and president of the Pensacola Beach Chamber of Commerce. Elbert "will not see any relief'' today from legislators even though he has filed a claim with BP for his losses in May, was told he will be paid, but still hasn't seen a penny. Sink thinks legislators should pass a law that requires BP to be given a 15-day deadline to respond to claims requests.
Democrats praise Crist
Florida House Democrats praised Gov. Charlie Crist for his proposed constitutional ban on near-shore drilling and blasted House Republicans for hypocrisy and obstructionism.
At a Tuesday morning press conference, leading Democrats took to the podium before a bank of television cameras and even national press to claim the high ground in the hours before the Legislature is expected to consider (or not) giving voters the opportunity to ban drilling in Florida waters.
Republican leaders argue the constitutional protections are not necessary given that drilling within 10 miles of the coast is not prohibited under current law. But House Democratic leader Franklin Sands said you can't trust them after they tried to repeal the law in recent years.
"I have an issue with believing what Republicans say," he said. "They also said they weren't going to raise our taxes. And yet we walked out of session a couple years ago with $2 billion in new taxes. So I have trouble believing them.
"To me, the pledges that the Republicans have taken are written on toilet paper," Sands continued. "And we all know what you can do with toilet paper."
Democrats also pivoted to note that top House GOP members supported a constitutional ban on gay marriage -- even though it was already illegal. Politics is at work, not voters interests, said Key West Democrat Ron Saunders said. And an oil ban on the ballot helps Democrats, so Republicans won't even allow debate on the issue. "This is an effort to suppress" Democratic turnout, said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, an Orlando Democrat.