As the BP oil blowout saturates Northwest Florida's already fragile economy with despair, a special legislative session in the coming weeks is becoming increasingly likely.
Republican legislators had been unwilling to agree to a special session because they felt it would give erstwhile GOP Gov. Charlie Crist a high-profile platform from which to seek a constitutional ban on oil drilling while he's running for the U.S. Senate. But it now appears election year politics are giving way to economic reality.
"I think there will be a need for a special session," said Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who chairs a Select Committee on Florida's Economy.
Gaetz wants lawmakers to give property tax relief to homeowners and businesses whose values may plummet from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and he says the state needs to lift regulatory barriers that may hinder the recovery. Also being discussed is a proposal to let businesses keep part of their tax revenue to avoid laying off employees.
The state, too, is sure to feel the effects as sales tax revenue declines. Chief economist Amy Baker said the first indications will surface in late July when June's tax receipts are known. The state was already facing a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall in 2011 because of the weak economy and disappearance of federal stimulus money.
"It's a little bit of a moving target because we have so little information as to what the impact of the spill will be in Florida," Baker said.
"It is going to be a catastrophe sales tax-wise," predicted Destin restaurateur Tom Rice, owner of the Magnolia Grill, where business is down 40 percent. "This was going to be our comeback year. It is the hurricane we have not been able to prepare for."
With many residents frustrated by the pace of the federal response, the perception of inaction or indifference at the state level could be politically harmful at a time when many lawmakers are seeking re-election or running for higher office.
The strongest impetus for a special session is coming from the Senate. At the other end of the Capitol, House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, has been least eager to reconvene the Legislature, and says what is needed is a sense of urgency to act on specific proposals.
Cretul has publicly criticized Crist for seeking a constitutional ban on drilling and says state law already bans drilling near the coast. The speaker, who keeps a daily count of the number of days left in his term, also blasted Crist for failing to show leadership by giving lawmakers a recovery blueprint.
"Up to now, all we're getting is rhetoric," Cretul said. "We haven't gotten anything of substance."
Dates for a special session have not been set, but it appears likely it will start after Aug. 4. That is the last day a proposed constitutional amendment can be sent to the state elections office to make the Nov. 2 ballot.
Crist says he wants a session in July or August. He has the power to summon both houses into a session but has been reluctant to do so.
The lack of a clear consensus between the nonpartisan governor and GOP lawmakers could easily devolve into chaos and finger-pointing.
"If you can reach some good form of consensus beforehand, it's better for everybody," Crist said. "Now is that absolutely essential? Not necessarily, but it is certainly preferred."
Democrats also have been clamoring for a special session. Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a candidate for governor, said the state must step in decisively.
"Right now, we're in a situation where there are no rules and no expectations," Sink said. Legislators are in a position to help Floridians better understand how to submit claims.
Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach and Reps. Keith Fitzgerald of Sarasota and Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg have proposed several steps, among them appointing a "compensation commissioner," banning near-shore drilling, and expanding the attorney general's power to prosecute for environmental wrongdoing. Gelber is running for attorney general.
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com.