TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday abruptly called for a special session of the Legislature in less than two weeks to ask lawmakers to let voters consider putting a ban on offshore oil drilling in the state Constitution.
Crist said the July 20-23 session will be devoted to one issue — “a rifle shot,” he called it, intended to tap into widespread disgust over the still-uncapped Deepwater Horizon blowout off the Louisiana coast, which is already decimating the Panhandle’s tourist-dependent economy.
But in doing so, the governor is trampling on a fundamental rule of Tallahassee politics: Don’t call a special session without an agreed-upon deal.
“The rightness of this is so clear, especially dealing with what we’ve experienced in the past 80 days or so in the Gulf of Mexico,” Crist said. “I just don’t think I’d be doing my duty as your governor if I didn’t call this session and at least try, and I’m hoping that we’ll be successful and we’ll see.”
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Republicans reacted with criticism or silence, and Democrats praised Crist’s move as overdue. A special session costs about $50,000 a day, largely for travel for all 160 legislators.
“Legislative action should be based on solid data and empirical analysis, rather than political contrivance,” Senate President Jeff Atwater said in a letter to senators, adding that additional measures should be considered during the session to help taxpayers and business owners. Crist’s proclamation, however, restricts the special session to the drilling amendment. To take up other subjects, lawmakers would need a two-thirds vote in each chamber.
Local delegation reaction
Members of the Manatee County Legislative Delegation had differing views on Crist’s call for a special session.
State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, called the special session unfortunate.
“I think we’re calling a special session for the wrong reason — primarily for campaign purposes,” Bennett said Thursday. “We are not going to drill in state waters, anyhow, it’s never going to happen, especially after this oil spill.”
Bennett said he has always been against offshore drilling.
“I think the more we continue to drill, the longer we will continue to delay doing the right thing — finding other sources of energy. I just don’t think it’s the type of thing we’d want in our constitution.”
State Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, said, “I congratulate Gov. Crist for his display of leadership in calling this much-needed special session. More than two months ago, I joined Democratic colleagues and other state leaders in urging the governor to take this action to, once and for all, forbid drilling off our shores and protect Florida’s beautiful coastline for future generations.”
Fitzgerald said the special session sends a strong signal to the rest of the country and the world.
“We don’t intend for Florida to become an oil state,” he said.
The Nov. 2 ballot
Crist noted that the deadline is Aug. 4 for a proposed constitutional amendment to make it to the Nov. 2 ballot, the same one he’s on as an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate. He said the Senate sponsor of the proposed drilling ban in state waters — three to 10 miles off the coast — will be Sen. J. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, but no House sponsor has been selected.
Crist said he did not know how House Republican leaders would react because they have repeatedly refused to return his phone calls. Crist is considered a pariah by top Republican lawmakers since he bolted the GOP in April to revive his Senate campaign.
House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, has accused Crist of grandstanding on drilling and has said drilling is already banned by state law, but Crist noted that House leaders tried in 2009 to allow drilling three miles off the coast before the Senate killed the bill.
Cretul had no comment Thursday, but in a recent interview he said: “Symbolic special sessions for some constitutional amendment that is already current law makes no sense to me, and I think the majority of the House leadership, if not all, will agree with that — and I think the majority of all the members will agree.”
Even if the Legislature were to reject a proposed drilling ban, Crist figures he would be on the prevailing side of public opinion. In addition, he is calculating that lawmakers facing opposition will be reluctant to oppose a drilling ban and hand some explosive ammunition to their opponents.
Yet Crist stridently insisted the upcoming election was not a factor in his decision.
“Politics has nothing to do with this,” Crist said. “This has everything to do with doing what’s right for a place that I love. I love Florida.”
A Quinnipiac University poll released June 9 showed 51 percent of Floridians opposed drilling off the coast, a huge shift from an April survey before the Gulf disaster in which 66 percent favored it.
Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat running for governor, first urged Crist to call a special session on May 6. Thursday she reiterated her support for a constitutional drilling ban.
Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican also running for governor, called a constitutional amendment “unnecessary.” McCollum, who has long opposed near-shore drilling off Florida, said an existing statutory ban is sufficient and that tax and regulatory incentives to draw tourists and businesses are more important.
The last special session was in December 2009 and dealt with plans for a high-speed rail system linking Tampa, Miami and Orlando and a commuter rail project in central Florida.
Republicans hold commanding majorities in both houses. Passage of a proposed constitutional amendment requires a three-fifths vote by both chambers, or 24 senators and 72 representatives. If a measure makes it the Nov. 2 ballot, it would require approval by 60 percent of voters to be added to the state Constitution. Already, there are nine ballot measures for November.
— Sara Kennedy, Herald staff writer, contributed to this report.