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Crist presses case, protesters gather, as special session on oil drilling opens

TALLAHASSEE — As Gov. Charlie Crist worked the phones Monday seeking legislative support for his proposed constitutional amendment to ban oil drilling, polls showed public favor for it may be rising.

The four-day special session called by the governor begins at noon Tuesday and is expected to end a few brief hours later. But while the Republican-led Legislature prepared to squash the governor's plan and rob him of a victory he can use in his bid to win the U.S. Senate seat, they may take a political hit in the process.

Protestors from oil-ravaged regions of the state are heading to the Capitol Tuesday and dozens of business owners, restaurant workers, defense industry contractors and hotel operators from Northwest Florida plan to sit in the House gallery as lawmakers reject the drilling ban.

"We want to make it clear that we are paying very close attention," warned Cathy Harrelson, a St. Petersburg activist who helped organize the rally.

Eric Draper, of Audubon of Florida, said legislators will be siding with oil industry if they block the public from voting on the proposal. "The oil guys are right about our motives, it's important to do it now because it's now that people are focused on the real risk of drilling,'' he said. "It's too important an issue to leave to the legislature. Put it on the ballot and let the voters vote.''

A Times/Herald review of campaign contributions to legislators and their political committees shows that between Jan. 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010, lawmakers received $278,452 from the oil and gas industry and their affiliated companies, including nearly $185,800 to the Republican Party of Florida and $77,000 to the Florida Democratic Party.

During that time, next year's House speaker, Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, pushed a bill to lift the Florida drilling ban. He has since backed off on that plan.

The survey of contributions did not cover donations since the Deepwater Horizon spill, which must be reported by July 23.

Republican lawmakers say Crist is grandstanding to score political points with independent and Democratic voters in his non-partisan bid to be Florida's next U.S. senator.

"It seems the only one really engaged in a special session right now is Charlie Crist," said Eric Fresen, a Miami Republican. He e-mailed supporters seeking feedback on the session and heard from only a few on the oil issue.

"Most of the feedback is job-related," he said. "One message asked, 'While you are up there, can you do anything about the economy?'

But according to recent public opinion polls, Crist appears more in line with the public than legislators. A poll released Monday by Progress Florida, a liberal group supporting the oil ban, showed that 71 percent of Florida voters want the chance to vote on the issue and 50 percent of those surveyed oppose drilling within 10 miles of Florida's coast.

The poll of 1,143 registered voters was conducted July 15-17 by Washington-based ISSI with a 2.8 percent margin of error. It reflects a dramatic shift from other surveys conducted before the April 20 spill, when there was strong support for more oil exploration.

A Quinnipiac University poll found that on April 19, 66 percent of Floridians surveyed supported more offshore oil drilling in coastal waters. But aA June 9 poll by the university found those numbers had reversed with only 42 percent support.

Crist says he's being punished solely because he quit the Republican Party. "It really shows their super-loyalty to a party over their loyalty to the oath they take when they get sworn into office," Crist told the Times/Herald. "You ought to give people the right to have their say. How can anyone say to them that we don't trust you to vote on this? That's unconscionable to me."

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the presumptive Democratic candidate for governor, scheduled a meeting Tuesday with Panhandle property appraisers and businesses demanding that the session agenda include economic relief to Northwest Florida businesses affected by the spill.

"Those people ought to get their little heinies out there and talk to those small business people who are one step closer to bankruptcy every day," she told the Associated Press.

There are more than 30 bills filed in addition to the Crist's proposed drilling and, House leaders, say none of them are expected to get a hearing.

Rep. Adam Hasner of Delray Beach, the House Republican leader, said lawmakers will use their brief session to "lay out a road map for tackling the serious issues'' regarding economic relief and streamlining the claims recovery process for special session expected to by called by the House speaker and Senate president for September.

"People are hurting and politics should not be entering the equation,'' he said. "Unfortunately, the governor is making this about politics and photo- ops.''

Crist's proposal has more of a chance of getting a hearing in the Senate, where Senate President Jeff Atwater plans to convene the Select Committee on Florida's Economy, chaired by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. But the Senate's willingness to bring the Crist proposal to the floor for an up-or-down vote is threatened by the possibility that the House may adjourn and send its members home without a vote.

That would be "immature and irresponsible,'' said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey and a Crist ally. "We can't dictate to the Florida house what to do but if they just ignore the special session, that's a slap in the face to every voter in their respective districts.''

In the top-down management style of the 120-member House, most rank-and-file lawmakers are very reluctant to publicly question leadership decisions.

"The speaker makes that call," said Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, who opposes a drilling ban in the Constitution. "Quite frankly, we're wasting taxpayer money by the minute because of the governor. The quicker we get out of here, the better."

Asked what he would tell his Hernando County voters who might want to register their view of drilling at the ballot box, Schenck said: "I would say it's already illegal."

Harrelson, the St. Petersburg environmental activist, said the current state law barring oil drilling within 10 miles of state shores isn't strong enough, given that lawmakers spent $200,000 on a study that paved the way for a bill last session to repeal it.

"It is disingenuous to continue to talk about this ban that is place which really has no teeth," she said. "We want it to have teeth."

Harrelson said the goal of drilling opponents on Tuesday "is to have those chambers galleries full," of protestors as lawmakers debate, she said.

Jim Witt, a retired political science professor at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, said the issue could have an affect on this year's elections, particularly in the Panhandle. "Out here, it could be a single issue type of vote," he said. "It would be people voting simply on emotion."

Staff writers John Frank, Lee Logan and Cristina Silva contributed to this report.

Crist presses case, protesters gather, as special session on oil drilling opens 07/19/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 9:47am]
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