Gov. Charlie Crist, a former Republican and now an independent U.S. Senate candidate, gambled by calling next week's special legislative session to strengthen Florida's offshore drilling ban. Now Republican House leaders, angry at Crist's stunt, are implying they won't schedule a vote to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. And House and Senate leaders agreed Thursday to delay other legislation related to the BP oil spill until September. Lawmakers still should vote up or down on Crist's proposal, because the only sin worse than calling a special session without a deal is sabotaging one out of political spite.
Crist called the session without securing buy-in from the Legislature's Republican leadership, Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul. He wants lawmakers to ask voters in November to amend the state Constitution to ban drilling in state waters, which are 3 to 10 miles from shore. Legislative leaders can complain that there is little immediate practical implication since a ban already exists in state law. But they are wrong to suggest it is not a concern to voters.
House leaders, in particular House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, have brought this moment on themselves. It was their relentless push in the past two regular legislative sessions to lift the state drilling ban that prompted concern that Florida's shoreline is vulnerable. Now that the BP spill has validated the critics' contention all along — there is real risk to Florida in offshore drilling — Crist has outflanked them. Once open to lifting the ban, Crist has pivoted to capitalize on public rage and the economic damage done to Florida by the BP oil spill. His point: Isn't this issue too important to leave to some future Legislature? Shouldn't voters decide? Indeed, given the past two years, they should.
Atwater and Cretul have cleared the deck to make sure Crist's proposed constitutional amendment, and not any other issue, will take center stage next week. The leaders agreed on Thursday to postpone until at least September any legislation reacting to the BP spill, such as adjusting property tax laws to account for mid-year devaluation of property. And it appeared the two men were exercising appropriate restraint by not opening the door to a range of other hot-button issues that special interests have sought to add to the session — such as immigration enforcement.
But Cretul and other House leaders are still suggesting they won't even allow a vote on Crist's proposal for a constitutional amendment. That's immature. The governor has forced the Legislature's hand. But now Cretul, Cannon and other House leaders have a duty to act responsibly and stop stonewalling. They need to go on the record as to whether they will let voters decide the future of Florida's coastline.