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House and Senate leaders poised to clamp a lid on special session on oil drilling

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist's bid to ask voters to ban oil drilling off Florida is in deep trouble, with the House backing away from a vote and the oil industry already declaring victory.

Crist is calling lawmakers back to work Tuesday for a four-day session to seek a proposed constitutional amendment to ban drilling in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the gulf. The state has until Aug. 4 to put the question on the Nov. 2 ballot, where passage needs the approval of 60 percent of voters.

In a poisonous political atmosphere, it now appears nothing will be accomplished next week, and the hostility between the independent governor and Republican-led Legislature will be worse than ever.

In the House, acrimony toward Crist remains intense over his decision to quit the Republican Party to save his U.S. Senate aspirations. House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, called the drilling ban "symbolic and perhaps even smoke and mirrors" and won't say whether he'll let members vote.

"Whether it gets to the floor or not, who knows?" Cretul said. "I suspect we'll have a lot of lengthy debate about that."

As speaker, Cretul has life-or-death control over legislation. In a memo to legislators, he said: "You can expect your stay to be very short next week."

Crist said the House would be "stunningly short-sighted" to thwart a referendum on offshore drilling, and he warned the House that some members would suffer politically in November as a result.

"Who in their right mind would argue that the people shouldn't have a right to vote on this?" Crist asked. "It's an unconscionable position."

By blocking a vote, Cretul denies a triumph to Crist, and House members avoid having to vote for a drilling ban against the wishes of House leaders, who say it's not needed because state law already bans drilling near the Florida coastline.

Sen. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat, observed: "There's so much animus between the governor and his former party, it's like an emotional vortex sucking everybody in."

Veteran oil industry lobbyist David Mica, of the Florida Petroleum Council, flatly predicted that neither chamber has three-fifths majorities to place the proposed drilling ban before voters.

"We feel very confident that the Legislature realizes that this is not something we want to do in the Constitution," Mica said. "I think the vast majority of the Legislature is ready to say to their constituents that there's a law in place."

Oil drilling opponent Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida noted that the House passed a bill in 2009 that would have opened up the shore to oil drilling. The bill sponsor, Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, will be the next House speaker.

"The oil industry has shown themselves to be a very powerful advocate for drilling in Florida's waters," Draper said. "This is the very reason why we need to put this to the voters, to get it away from the Legislature."

As prospects for that grew more remote Thursday, legislative leaders changed the subject.

Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, in separate letters, agreed on the need for another special session, in late August or early September. But the focus would be on streamlining the claims process for spill victims and tax and economic relief for affected residents and businesses.

Both leaders agreed that the session Crist called for next week won't allow time for that.

"Ill advised and poorly conceived legislative action might very well impede the speedy resolution of claims and make things more difficult for the citizens of Florida," Atwater wrote.

One lawmaker whose constituents are feeling the spill's impact most directly is Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. He convened a four-hour hearing in Pensacola Monday in anticipation of proposing legislation to help Panhandle businesses and individuals struggling financially because of the oil spill.

However, after pushing legislative leaders and Crist to expand the agenda of the special session, Gaetz gave up. He places no blame on House leaders, who resisted Senate ovations to expand the scope of the session. He blames Crist.

"The governor had no interest in the economic issues of the Gulf Coast,'' Gaetz said. "I pushed as hard as I can for expanding the call, but when the clock rolled out on this, I called for a special session as soon as we can get one."

In a reply to Atwater, Cretul directed a parting shot at Crist's drilling ban proposal: "Rushing to amend the Constitution at the last possible moment because of an accident hundreds of miles from our jurisdiction does not typify deliberation and responsible legislation."

Other than Crist, Atwater may have the most to lose or gain on the question of a ban on drilling: He is a statewide candidate for chief financial officer.

The House version of the drilling ban appeared Thursday, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg and Keith Fitzgerald of Sarasota. The 62-word, two-sentence bill asks voters "to prohibit oil and natural gas exploration, drilling, extraction and production in and beneath all state waters."

Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Lee Logan contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

House and Senate leaders poised to clamp a lid on special session on oil drilling 07/15/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 16, 2010 6:50am]
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