Special session on drilling poses hard choice for GOP lawmakers from the coast

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist's call for a special session on oil drilling has put some coastal Republican lawmakers in a tough spot.

House leaders are generally cool to adding a proposed constitutional amendment banning drilling to the ballot. They point out that Florida law already bans drilling in state waters. They call the governor's move a political stunt.

"It's not productive to talk about rebanning something that's already illegal," said Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Fort Walton Beach.

But lawmakers also know that banning drilling is a political slam-dunk in an election year with images of oiled pelicans, tar balls and empty beachfront hotels on voters' minds.

"I congratulate the governor for at least giving the members a chance to vote on it before Election Day," said Sen. Dennis Jones, a Seminole Republican who supports Crist's independent bid for the U.S. Senate. "That way, the general public will have a sense of where their representative stands."

A ''no'' vote poses a political risk to Republicans whose districts include sugar-white sand on the Panhandle, fragile estuaries on the Nature Coast or South Florida beaches vulnerable to the loop current. Most of those lawmakers said they would vote for a ban or are leaning toward it.

Gaetz and future Senate President Mike Haridopolos of Merritt Island are two of a few coastal Republicans to publicly oppose a constitutional ban. Gaetz argues that the constitution "shouldn't be used to litigate the hot issue of the day."

Two lawmakers — Reps. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill — refused to say how they would vote.

Bogdanoff said it's "premature to address that issue" and that lawmakers should focus on tangible relief for victims of the oil spill.

Although Crist limited the July 20-23 session to the drilling ban, House Speaker Larry Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater could decide to add other topics, such as:

• Tax relief for coastal business owners whose property values have dropped because of the oil spill.

• Expanding the attorney general's power to prosecute for environmental wrongdoing.

• Allowing businesses to keep part of their tax revenue to avoid layoffs.

• A target for renewable energy production in Florida. The Senate last year passed a 20 percent goal by 2020.

"At least then the people of Florida would get something for their money," Schenck said of the $200,000 cost of a four-day special session. "Right now they're getting zero."

Incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon of Winter Park spent that exact amount — $200,000 — this spring on a consultant study to help justify his push for drilling in Florida waters.

Cannon and Haridopolos, who are about to control the Legislature for the next two years, both say Deepwater Horizon is a "game-changer" that puts off expanded drilling for the foreseeable future.

To get on this year's November ballot, lawmakers must pass a proposed amendment with a three-fifths vote before Aug. 4. At least 60 percent of voters must approve the proposal to place it in the constitution.

A ban would likely find a more receptive audience in the Senate, where several moderate Republicans would join with Democrats to send the measure to voters.

Rep. Ron Schultz — who is quick to point out that he would vote for a ban — conceded the House could be a stumbling block.

"I doubt the votes are there," he said. "And if the leadership doesn't sign on, I'm sure the votes won't be there."

Schultz, R-Homosassa, also floated a theory that top leaders might agree to pass a drilling ban in exchange for a chance to revisit their push for an amendment to give them more power to draw political boundaries.

The Legislature's Amendment 7, a response to the Fair Districts proposals, was tossed off the ballot Thursday by a Tallahassee judge who said it was too confusing. On the same day, Crist called for the session on drilling.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Special session on drilling poses hard choice for GOP lawmakers from the coast 07/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 10, 2010 3:08pm]

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