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Hernando County delegation split on amendment to ban oil drilling

BROOKSVILLE — Call it political posturing, populism or perhaps some of both.

Whatever his motivations for calling a special session to consider a potential oil-drilling ban off Florida's waters, Gov. Charlie Crist can expect support from at least three of Hernando County's four legislative delegation members.

Sen. Mike Fasano, Sen. Paula Dockery and Rep. Ron Schultz — all Republicans — say they will back a proposed constitutional amendment for the November ballot to ban oil drilling in state waters.

Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, said he probably will not support the measure, echoing the criticism of several GOP lawmakers who call an amendment redundant since a statute already forbids drilling in state waters.

Fasano, whose district includes coastal Hernando County, said voters should decide that. The special session, called by Crist last week and slated for July 20-23, is a good idea in light of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, he said.

"I think it's important that we give the people the opportunity to voice either their support or objection to a constitutional amendment," Fasano said. "I'll be voting yes, and I'll be voting yes in November."

Dockery, a staunch drilling opponent from Lakeland who recently bowed out of the gubernatorial race, said while still campaigning in May that a special session would not be a wise use of taxpayer dollars.

This week, Dockery said she respects Crist's decision to call the session and would work to place the measure on the Nov. 2 ballot. The deadline to submit a constitutional amendment is Aug. 4.

"I always feel comfortable sending issues of great importance to the voters, and I think this is one they should have a say in," she said.

In calling the session, Crist called the existing ban vulnerable to the political winds, pointing out that the Senate has already tried to change it.

Dockery agrees. "That statutory ban doesn't give me much comfort," she said.

Schenck, whose district includes most of Hernando County including the coast, contends that unnecessary amendments already clutter the state Constitution and one that bans drilling would be vulnerable, too.

"Any special interest groups can get anything on the ballot, so an amendment is not stronger than statute anymore," Schenck said.

Schultz's district includes all of the Citrus coast, a portion of the Levy coast and a central portion of Hernando. He filed legislation in the last regular session to create the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve in the state-owned waters off Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties to protect the sea grass beds there.

The beds are important habitat for the fish that support commercial and recreational fishing interests, Schultz said. The bill died in committee. He said the same motivation to file that bill will prompt him to support the proposed amendment and drilling ban.

With the construction associated with drilling, "You're going to just destroy the grass beds before you even get to the point of a spill," Schultz said.

Passage of a proposed constitutional amendment requires a three-fifths vote by both chambers, or 24 senators and 72 representatives. A measure on the ballot would require approval by 60 percent of voters to be added to the Constitution.

"The rightness of this is so clear, especially dealing with what we've experienced in the past 80 days or so in the Gulf of Mexico," Crist said last week. "I just don't think I'd be doing my duty as your governor if I didn't call this session and at least try, and I'm hoping that we'll be successful and we'll see."

But Crist, who angered Republican lawmakers by abandoning the party in April for an independent U.S. Senate bid, has drawn criticism from his former party members for calling the session. They say the session, which costs taxpayers about $50,000 a day, is little more than a public relations move for Crist.

"The taxpayers are paying a ton of money for the governor to make political points, and I just think it's ridiculous," Schenck said.

The governor has denied that politics played a role in his decision.

Fasano, who continues to be one of Crist's staunchest Republican supporters, calls those kind of allegations predictable.

"You would expect that kind of response from his critics in an election year," Fasano said. "They criticize when he does something, they criticize when he doesn't do something. That's why the governor takes no notice of those who would like to see him fail."

Fasano hinted that even Crist's foes who are loath to see the governor score a success may have a hard time fighting this cause.

"It will be interesting to see how many members of the Florida Legislature vote against an amendment that allows the people to make a decision," Fasano said.

Crist supporters and critics alike express hope that the Legislature can go beyond the drilling ban amendment and take action to help Floridians affected by the current disaster. Among the ideas mentioned are temporary tax relief for coastal business owners whose property values have dropped because of the oil spill and allowing businesses to keep part of their tax revenue to avoid layoffs.

"There are more things like that we should be looking at instead of just playing politics," Schenck said.

"Anything that's going to keep our businesses healthy and avoid layoffs, I'm all for," Fasano said.

Dockery said she would be open to such ideas but doesn't want the state to take the burden of relief that BP should bear.

"The fact of the matter is, there is one group responsible for what happened and that's BP and its contractors," Dockery said.

Dockery has another compelling mission for the session, though.

She and Tampa Republican Rep. Kevin Ambler on Wednesday announced hopes to pass three immigration reform bills. One would, among a host of other provisions, require law enforcement officers to check a person's immigration status during a lawful stop if there is reasonable suspicion that the person is in the country illegally.

Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando County delegation split on amendment to ban oil drilling 07/14/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 14, 2010 7:10pm]
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