Special Reports

Session may bypass offshore drilling issue

MANATEE — Local legislators are predicting a brief special session today, one that does not even address the issue it was called to decide: Whether a constitutional amendment banning oil exploration and drilling in state waters should be on the Nov. 2 ballot for voters to decide.

Democrats and environmentalists Monday accused Republicans of allowing political gamesmanship to trump the voters’ best interests, while GOPers fired back that Florida already bans offshore drilling, and the proposed amendment would be redundant.

“I think, based on comments from both the speaker and senate president, there is a desire to take a more deliberative approach to this issue, perhaps put together a joint committee to analyze real impacts of the Deepwater Horizon crisis, as opposed to a quick session to pass a constitutional amendment that would have no effect on something like the Deepwater Horizon situation,” said state Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who chairs the powerful House Rules and Calendar Council.

“With that in mind, I believe you’ll see us not take up the amendment at all, but instead undertake to analyze the issue, and perhaps come back in September, when we’re ready to make some real recommendations to help the people of Florida, including the businesses in Manatee County,” Galvano said.

On the constitutional amendment itself, Galvano said, “I think it at this point is redundant, given the status of the law and is being used as a political tool, so I would not support it.”

Florida already bans offshore oil drilling, but before the BP well at Deepwater Horizon caught fire and exploded, the Legislature and Crist had explored allowing drilling, possibly within three miles of the coast.

Crist called the special session to take the first step toward putting a ban in the state constitution. Such a measure would require a 60 percent approval vote in both Senate and House, and the same percentage from approving voters.

But it would then take an identical set of votes to allow drilling, rather than a simple majority vote of the Legislature and a governor’s signature.

Galvano emphasized he does not support drilling, adding, “I think we should be using alternative sources of energy.”

State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, took a similar view. “I think the special session is not going to accomplish as much as anybody wanted it to,” Bennett said. Asked whether the ban on drilling would even be brought up for a vote, Bennett replied, “If I were a gambling person, I would say, ‘Probably not.’”

“Personally, I have always opposed drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, however, I don’t believe we should be having a constitutional amendment.”

“I hold the constitution a little more sacred than some others,” he said.

Democrat Keith Fitzgerald, of Sarasota, chastised the Republican leadership for what he said was political gamesmanship in lieu of helping Floridians suffering from the effects of the massive oil spill.

“I think some people don’t want to give the governor a political win,” said Fitzgerald. “I’ve talked to people close to the leadership who say they don’t want to make Gov. Crist look good.

“I think it’s time to put aside politics and think about what’s best,” Fitzgerald said. “I think people want a say on a constitutional amendment, I think playing politics with it is a huge mistake, and very regrettable.”

The Florida House has 120 members, 44 of which are Democrats; the Florida Senate has 39 members, 13 of which are Democrats, with one vacant seat.

Anna Maria Island resident Caryn Hodge, organizer of the June 26 Hands Across the Sand anti-drilling demonstration there, will not be able to attend the special session, but hopes legislators will vote for the resolution to ban oil drilling.

“I support alternative clean energy rather than off-shore drilling,” Hodge said. “I know that’s not the most popular, or cost-effective choice, but I think it’s important to look at alternatives to off-shore drilling. If you don’t, you are left with the easy way out and this is what happens.”

Environmental safeguards can easily be compromised when energy choices stray from “clean” energy produced by renewable means, Hodge added.

“I don’t think companies are watching out for the environment, and for people affected when bad things happen,” Hodge said.

State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said the governor’s office phoned to ask how she would vote.

“If it was on the table tomorrow to put the issue before the voters, yes, I would vote for that,” she said Monday.

“I told the governor, yes, I would vote to have it put on the ballot if I am given that choice, but somehow, I don’t think I’ll be given that choice tomorrow morning.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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