State Politics

State representatives question sponsor of oil drilling proposal

MANATEE — A bill that would allow oil and gas drilling off Florida’s coast is ready for a vote in the state House of Representatives.

Legislators questioned its sponsor, Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, for more than an hour Friday, voicing concern about House Bill 1219, which would allow oil and gas drilling between three and 10 miles offshore.

It would lift Florida’s ban on oil drilling in state waters and allow the governor and Florida Cabinet to seek bidders for exploration and drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Some expressed worries that drilling could hurt the tourism industry, the seafood industry and the environment.

Van Zant assured members that drilling technology has advanced to the point that there is minimal risk of serious oil spills from drilling equipment, even during hurricanes.

He turned aside fears that it might damage the state’s tourism industry, emphasizing that opening the coast to oil and natural gas exploration could create between 16,000 and 20,000 jobs and bring in a minimum of $6.4 billion in revenues to the state. Among those questioning Van Zant about the proposal was Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota.

When Fitzgerald asked what the excise tax rate would be under the bill, Van Zant replied he didn’t know.

(Excise taxes are taxes paid when purchases are made on a specific good, such as gasoline. Excise taxes are often included in the price of the product.)

Then Fitzgerald asked Van Zant to detail how he had figured the amount of money the oil and gas industry might bring to the state if he did not know the tax rate.

Van Zant replied that he had asked oil and gas industry officials for their estimates, adding, “Certainly, it will include rates for excise tax.”

Fitzgerald then asked if the oil and gas industry would get to set its own tax rates.

“I believe the rate would be between 8-9 percent,” Van Zant explained, adding that oil and gas industry executives are “not in charge of setting any rate.”

Galvano to change vote

A more exact estimate would be available once things are underway, Van Zant assured Fitzgerald.

Wednesday, Fitzgerald voted against the measure when it came before the House Policy Council. He intends to vote “no” when it reaches the House floor, probably Monday, he said.

State Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the only other local legislator who was also a member of the council, voted for the measure Wednesday. Galvano said his affirmative vote was meant to allow the issue to be brought up for debate. Friday, his office confirmed he would vote “no” when the measure came before the full House.

“I am not going to support the drilling bill,” Galvano said. “Consistently, through this issue, I’ve always been very cautious of our coastline, I’ve made it clear I was not an advocate for drilling offshore,” he said. “I had opportunity through the council to at least discuss the issue, but as far as passing the bill, I will not support.”

An organization that lobbies for business, Associated Industries of Florida, launched a new television and print advertising campaign to illustrate what it called “the significant economic benefits of environmentally safe oil and natural gas exploration and production in Florida’s Gulf Coast.”

“We support unshackling the hands of the governor and cabinet, and providing them with the flexibility to pursue energy security,” said Barney Bishop III, president and chief executive officer.

Red-light camera bill

In other action, legislators took up House Bill 439, setting up a statewide uniform standard for communities using high-tech cameras to halt red-light runners, according to The News Service of Florida.

The House rolled the bill to third reading after adding four amendments: One grandfathers in cameras already in use, one changes the distribution of money from the tickets by specifying that 18 percent of the money coming in would go to trauma centers, instead of 20 percent; one earmarked 2 percent of the ticket money for people who provide services for those with brain injuries, and another dealt with challenges to tickets, it said.

The legislation is named in honor of Mark Wandall, who was killed at Tara Boulevard and State Road 70 by a driver who had run a red light.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 708-7908 or at The Associated Press contributed to this report.