Asking Florida voters to amend the state Constitution to ban drilling in state-owned waters is a fine idea. But Gov. Charlie Crist needs to be sure he has the votes to place such a measure on the November ballot before he calls the Legislature to Tallahassee. Trying to shame reluctant lawmakers into doing the right thing in a special session could very well fail. And such a failure could be worse for the future of Florida's shoreline than doing nothing now.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill refutes completely the rosy testimony before the Legislature that drilling is so safe that Florida should abandon a law that bans drilling in state waters from 3 to 10 miles off shore. Even the standard-bearers for the oil industry for the past two years — incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, and incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne — now say they won't push the issue again in 2011.
But memories are short in Tallahassee. Crist is right that without a drilling ban in the state Constitution, the ban in state law can be changed at whim by any future Legislature. If Florida is lucky enough to avoid having oil wash up on its shores now, it would only be a matter of time before the influential oil industry renewed its push.
Crist looks like an opportunist eager to stoke his independent bid for the U.S. Senate by grandstanding. He all but abandoned his opposition to drilling a year ago as Republicans cried, "Drill, baby, drill." The governor also has no influence with most Republican legislators, particularly the House leadership, since his acrimonious departure from the party.
History shows an overreaching governor responding to outside events can end up embarrassed in a special session. In 1989, Gov. Bob Martinez seized on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing abortion restrictions and called a special session without an agreement with lawmakers. Legislators defeated every bill in committees.
But the gamble isn't just personal or political. If Crist doesn't have votes lined up before he calls the session, he could ultimately strengthen the drilling industry's hand whenever it returns to Tallahassee or Washington. There has long been speculation that the industry isn't really interested in tapping the paltry reserves in Florida's state waters. Its real goal is to get the state ban overturned to send a signal to Washington that Florida is no longer off limits, setting the stage to reopen drilling in federal waters in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. In 2006, in a compromise forced by Florida's bipartisan delegation, Congress banned drilling there within 235 miles of Tampa Bay and 125 miles of the Panhandle through 2022.
Even if Crist has waffled in the past on drilling, he's on sound ground now, just like Florida politicians from both parties were for years before the oil drilling craze hit Tallahassee. Drilling poses too great a risk to the state's pristine beaches, tourism and overall economy. But Crist now must also practice sound leadership to ensure that whatever he does is best for Florida — not just some political theater. The governor needs to count votes and make sure he has enough to get a constitutional amendment to ban drilling on the ballot before he calls a special session. A good idea is no good if it fails to pass and creates the potential for more mischief in the future.