Special Reports

Stopping vote could mean GOP trouble

By STEVE BOUSQUET and MARY ELLEN KLAS

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE — As Gov. Charlie Crist worked the phones Monday seeking legislative support for his proposed constitutional amendment to ban oil drilling, polls showed public favor for it may be rising.

The four-day special session called by the governor begins at noon today and is expected to end a few brief hours later. But while the Republican-led Legislature prepared to squash the governor’s plan and rob him of a victory he can use in his bid to win the U.S. Senate seat, they may take a political hit in the process.

Protestors from oil-ravaged regions of the state are heading to the Capitol today and dozens of business owners, restaurant workers, defense industry contractors and hotel operators from Northwest Florida plan to sit in the House gallery as lawmakers reject the drilling ban.

“We want to make it clear that we are paying very close attention,” warned Cathy Harrelson, a St. Petersburg environmental activist and one of the organizers behind a rally at the Capitol Tuesday to support the constitutional ban.

Eric Draper, of Audubon of Florida, which helped to organize the protest, said that legislators will be siding with the oil industry if they vote to keep the proposal away from voters.

“The oil guys are right about our motives, it’s important to do it now because it’s now that people are focused on the real risk of drilling,” he said. “It’s too important an issue to leave to the Legislature. Put it on the ballot and let the voters vote.”

A Times/Herald review of campaign contributions to legislators and their political committees shows that between Jan. 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010, lawmakers received $278,452 from the oil and gas industry and their affiliated companies, including nearly $185,800 to the Republican Party of Florida and $77,000 to the Florida Democratic Party.

During that time, Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, was proposing legislation to lift the drilling ban in Florida waters, an effort he planned to postpone until next year when he is expected to be House speaker.

Since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, he has said he has no plans to continue to push to lift the drilling ban. The review of contributions did not include any of the funds received by lawmakers since the oil spill, or since Crist endorsed a drilling ban. Those contributions must be reported by July 23.

Republican lawmakers say Crist is grandstanding and trying to score political points with independent and Democratic voters in his non-partisan bid to be Florida’s next U.S. senator.

“It seems the only one really engaged in a special session right now is Charlie Crist,” said Eric Fresen, a Miami Republican. He e-mailed supporters seeking feedback on the session and heard from only a few on the oil issue.

“Most of the feedback is job-related,” he said. “One message asked, ‘While you are up there, can you do anything about the economy?’”

But according to recent public opinion polls, Crist appears more in line with the public than legislators. A poll released Monday by Progress Florida, a liberal group supporting the oil ban, showed that 71 percent of Florida voters want the chance to vote on the issue and 50 percent of those surveyed oppose drilling within 10 miles of Florida’s coast.

The poll of 1,143 registered voters was conducted July 15-17 by Washington-based ISSI with a 2.8 percent margin of error. It reflects a dramatic shift from other surveys conducted before the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that indicated strong support for more oil exploration.

A Quinnipiac University poll found that April 19, 66 percent of Floridians surveyed supported more offshore oil drilling in coastal waters. But a June 9 poll by the university found those numbers had reversed with only 42 percent support.

Crist says he’s being punished solely because of his decision to “check out” and renounce his Republican Party affiliation.

“It really shows their super-loyalty to a party over their loyalty to the oath they take when they get sworn into office,” Crist told the Times/Herald. “You ought to give people the right to have their say. How can anyone say to them that we don’t trust you to vote on this? That’s unconscionable to me.”

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the presumptive Democratic candidate for governor, scheduled a meeting today with Panhandle property appraisers and businesses demanding that lawmakers amend the session agenda to offer economic relief to Northwest Florida businesses crippled by the oil disaster.

“Those people ought to get their little heinies out there and talk to those small business people who are one step closer to bankruptcy every day,” she told the Associated Press.

There are more than 30 bills filed in addition to the Crist’s proposed drilling and, House leaders, say none of them are expected to get a hearing.

The Senate has scheduled a meeting of its select committee on the state’s economy for Wednesday to continue a broader discussion of how to help the Panhandle cope with the economic effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. House leaders refused to discuss their plans.

Crist’s proposal has more of a chance of getting a hearing in the Senate, where Senate President Jeff Atwater plans to convene a meeting of the Select Committee on Florida’s Economy, chaired by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. But the Senate’s willingness to bring the Crist proposal to the floor for an up-or-down vote is threatened by the possibility that the House may adjourn and send its members home without a vote.

That would be “immature and irresponsible,” said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey and a Crist ally. “We can’t dictate to the Florida House what to do but if they just ignore the special session, that’s a slap in the face to every voter in their respective districts.”

In the top-down management style of the 120-member House, most rank-and-file lawmakers are very reluctant to publicly question leadership decisions.

“The speaker makes that call,” said Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, who opposes a drilling ban in the Constitution. “Quite frankly, we’re wasting taxpayer money by the minute because of the governor. The quicker we get out of here, the better.”

Asked what he would tell his Hernando County constituents who might want to register their opposition to drilling at the ballot box, Schenck said: “I would say it’s already illegal.”

Harrelson, the St. Petersburg environmental activist, said the current state law prohibiting oil drilling within 10 miles of state shores isn’t strong enough, given that lawmakers spent $200,000 on a study that paved the way for proposed legislation last session to repeal it.

“It is disingenuous to continue to talk about this ban that is place which really has no teeth,” she said. “We want it to have teeth.”

Harrelson said the goal of drilling opponents on Tuesday “is to have those chambers galleries full” of protestors as lawmakers debate.

Jim Witt, a retired political science professor at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, said the issue could have an affect on this year’s elections, particularly in the Panhandle. “Out here, it could be a single issue type of vote,” he said. “It would be people voting simply on emotion.”

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