TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist's announcement Tuesday that he would call a special legislative session this month to ask voters to ban oil drilling off Florida's coast and revive renewable energy legislation immediately sparked an angry clash between the independent Crist and his former Republican colleagues.
Crist said that because of the Gulf oil disaster, "it's appropriate for the people of Florida'' to have a chance to vote on a constitutional amendment to ban oil drilling in Florida waters — between the beach and 10.6 miles offshore. He also wants to use the session to revive incentives for renewable energy legislation.
"I want to talk about wind, nuclear, solar, natural gas and other alternative means to provide energy to our people,'' Crist said, adding that he wasn't sure if he or legislative leaders would formally call the session.
But the governor's suggestion of bringing lawmakers back to Tallahassee the week of May 24 without a consensus on the energy issues sparked harsh rebukes from House and Senate leaders.
House Speaker Larry Cretul, an Ocala Republican, blasted Crist's call for a special session as "a political ploy to promote the future of politicians." In a statement from his office, Cretul said state leaders and resources should focus on "solving the real problem at hand, not fighting political campaigns at taxpayers' expense."
Rep. Dean Cannon, a Winter Park Republican and incoming House speaker who had been the Legislature's strongest advocate for opening Florida waters to oil drilling, agreed that a special session was unnecessary because of a federal ban that now bans oil drilling 125 miles off state beaches.
"State and federal law already prohibits oil drilling off of Florida's shores and lifting the ban will be off the table while I am speaker, so a special session to address it is unwarranted,'' Cannon said in a statement.
Senate President Jeff Atwater, who single-handedly blocked Cannon's pro-drilling bill from being taken up in the Senate in the just-ended regular session, raised questions about the renewable energy legislation, saying it could result in higher utility costs. He called on Crist to offer a renewable energy bill that would have "minimal impact on Florida's rate-paying citizens."
"Before we enter a special session," Atwater said, "we must find common ground" with the governor and House.
Legislative leaders had pushed for a renewable energy bill backed by Crist that would have allowed Florida's largest electric companies to raise the average customer bills $1 a month to pay for the construction of new solar-powered electric plants. But the measure died in the Senate on the last day of the session amid concerns that it allowed the utility companies to charge higher rates without proving they were using the lowest costs for the new technology.
Clean energy advocates say the Gulf oil disaster has increased the need for the state to promote alternatives to fossil fuels and challenge the critics who claim it will cost more money than traditional fuels.
"It is critical we take an honest look at the power of energy generation in Florida,'' said Susan Glickman of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "In many cases, clean renewable energy is comparable in cost to traditional fossil fuels but, if you added the costs of the oil spill, respiratory diseases caused by pollution, the cost of greenhouse gas emissions and the sea level rise, the real costs are countless.''
She said that if legislators were honest about the debate, they would set fuel standards that require all automobile fuel in Florida to use some low-carbon fuels and require power companies to use renewable energy sources.
Whether Crist can build consensus on any of these issues amid the new political dynamics in Florida's capital is still unknown. Since he first angered lawmakers by vetoing a teacher merit pay bill supported by most GOP lawmakers, and then severed ties with the Republican Party and announced he would seek election to the U.S. Senate without party affiliation, the relationship between the governor and Republican legislative leaders has become bitter and divisive.
Crist can issue a proclamation calling the Legislature into special session but, once convened, they don't have to pass anything. They could even call themselves back into session and send Crist more Republican-backed legislation that he would oppose as he attempts to appeal to the state's moderate and independent voters.
The politics of offshore drilling were on full display Tuesday at a Cabinet meeting. The two Cabinet members who hope to succeed Crist in the governor's office echoed Crist's call for a special session to consider a ban on offshore drilling.
Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat, thanked him "for wanting to let the voters of Florida have their say.''
McCollum, a Republican, noted he has been "opposed to it (drilling) all along" but said the proposed amendment needed to be "very carefully-worded" so it did not restrict "new scientific options that may come along."
Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson, a term-limited Republican, was the lone voice opposing a referendum to ban drilling off Florida's coast, citing 40 years of accident-free drilling in the Gulf. "I think we ought to know all of the facts before we overreact," Bronson said. "I see this as one incident."