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Published Jul. 12, 2010

Gov. Charlie Crist has taken a significant gamble by calling a special session of the Legislature aimed at ensuring state waters are forever off limits to drilling. The independent candidate for U.S. Senate - who not too long ago was open to drilling - has no assurance that an uncooperative, Republican-led House or even the more amenable Senate will embrace the cause. Despite Crist's grandstanding, lawmakers should get past politics and vote to give voters the opportunity to enshrine the drilling ban in the state Constitution.

State law already bans drilling in state waters, which stretch from 3 to 10 miles offshore. It is a policy that was long embraced by leaders of both political parties as necessary to protecting Florida's tourist economy. But during the past two annual legislative sessions - before the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico - a push by a shadowy group of drilling interests prompted two Republican leaders to aggressively push to overturn the law. Incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, and incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, have since pledged to drop the issue for at least a year until more is known about what went wrong at Deepwater.

But that is no guarantee that the industry's assault won't resume in 2012 - particularly because its ultimate goal extends beyond tapping what limited reserves may lie under state water. The industry's greater interest lies in sending a signal to Washington that Florida is no longer a no-drill state. That would set the stage to reopen drilling in federal waters in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. A 2006 congressional compromise pushed by Florida's bipartisan delegation bans drilling in federal waters within 235 miles of Tampa Bay and 125 miles of the Panhandle through 2022.

The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe has demonstrated what Florida politicians understood for decades: An oil spill that in any way threatens the state's beaches is disastrous for Florida tourism and by extension the entire state's economy.

Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, has shown great leadership in the past in helping to curtail efforts to lift the drilling ban, though he understandably expressed reservations on Thursday about Crist forcing the question. He's also right to suggest that lawmakers should consider some additional measures during the special session to help taxpayers and business owners impacted by the spill.

Crist has broken the primary rule of special sessions - know the outcome before calling one. Ultimately, the greater political risk might be for any lawmaker who doesn't give voters a chance to decide such a timely issue. But the biggest gamble will be the state's if lawmakers put the question on the ballot. Passing a constitutional amendment will require 60 percent voter approval. Meeting that standard would send an unmistakable message from Florida. Failure would only embolden drilling advocates.