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Special session short, not sweet for oil spill victims seeking relief

TALLAHASSEE — When Florida's legislators quickly gaveled in and gaveled out their special session Tuesday, they also walked away from an opportunity to deliver tax breaks and economic relief to businesses struggling in the oil-ravaged regions of the state.

House Speaker Larry Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater instead promised to convene meetings over the next month, then come back for another special session in late August or early September.

"There is nothing we can do this week to improve the situation more than we could in September," Cretul told the House before it voted 67-44 to adjourn.

State law allowed the two presiding officers to convene their own special session, or get the support of two-thirds of each chamber to expand the agenda. By rejecting both options, they turned down calls from property appraisers in Northwest Florida to pass a law to give them the ability to give partial rebates to home­owners and businesses whose property values have dropped because of the threat of oil washing ashore and to send BP the bill.

They ignored a request by Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink to streamline the claims process and require BP to respond to claimants in 15 days, just as insurance companies do after a hurricane. And they rejected calls from legal experts to strengthen laws detailing BP's obligation to pay for its pollution and economic damages.

Sink, a Democrat and candidate for governor and the first to call for a special session, accused lawmakers of being "tone-deaf" and "twiddling their thumbs."

"They don't have enough time for small business owners in Northwest Florida," she said at a news conference Tuesday. "They don't have enough time for the oystermen or the bait tackle shop owner or the countless other working class folks that call Northwest Florida home."

Sink introduced Jeff Elbert, a souvenir shop owner and president of the Pensacola Beach Chamber of Commerce, who submitted a claim in May to BP but said he "has not received 1 cent."

Escambia County Property Appraiser Chris Jones joined Sink in urging lawmakers to give appraisers the ability to provide rebates to struggling property owners and send BP the bill. He said the area's property values have dropped 25 to 50 percent, especially for motels and vacation rentals.

The rebates, he said, might "help keep them in business for at least a year."

Atwater was more sympathetic to the pleas, and called the House's abrupt adjournment "a circus act," but blamed House leaders and Crist for failing to agree to his call to add economic relief to the agenda.

"The governor called me on May 10 and said, 'Are you receptive to a special session on oil drilling?' And I said, 'Absolutely,' " he said. But, he added: "While we're there … let's talk about real relief" for those financially harmed by the spill.

Six weeks later, the governor's call for a special session included only the constitutional amendment proposal, and Atwater's attempts to persuade the House were unsuccessful, he said.

Crist said Tuesday that he never received a call from either the House or Senate asking him to expand the agenda and, instead, concluded that while economic relief "was important, too" voting out the amendment was more pressing because of the Aug. 4 deadline to complete the November election ballot.

"It's first things first," he said. "We ought to address the issue that's at hand."

After Crist called the session, Atwater convened a committee to look at economic issues and it met last week in Pensacola.

Cretul on Tuesday named six work groups to study ways to help people caught in the crisis. But they didn't meet Tuesday. Cretul sent everyone home.

"We were called here today because of politics, but we are leaving with a concrete work plan to provide real aid for those who are most in need," he said.

The Senate's Select Committee on Florida's Economy did hear testimony from legislative staffers and an economics professor on options for providing relief and seeking reimbursement from BP, such as states having a uniform claims process, cutting unemployment compensation payments for affected businesses and lease payments for marinas. "We need to act very quickly," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, who has been assigned by the Senate to draft a plan for how to strengthen Florida's pollution damages laws.

Several Democrats were critical of the move to delay action.

"It's a stalling tactic," said Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hollywood. "They're not going to come back with anything more from these work groups than what we could have done here in four days."

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

Special session short, not sweet for oil spill victims seeking relief 07/20/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 12:11am]
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