Special Reports

State legislature rejects vote on drilling ban

Moving with extraordinary speed, the Florida Legislature took just two hours Tuesday to reject Gov. Charlie Crist’s proposal to give voters the chance to amend the state Constitution and ban offshore oil drilling.

In a brief special session, Republicans carried out a plan to block Crist from scoring political points by leading the charge for what they see as a symbolic ban on near-shore drilling, something already barred by state law.

The referendum is strongly supported by Democrats and independents whose votes Crist covets as an independent U.S. Senate candidate.

Lawmakers said they would work on another special session in September, one focused on long-term measures to provide economic relief to people affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf.

A fired-up Crist heaped scorn on lawmakers, criticizing them for an “arrogance of power” and urging voters to throw them out of office in November.

“They are the do-nothing Legislature,” said Crist, who called the special session in hopes of beating the Aug. 4 deadline to add a referendum to the Nov. 2 general election ballot.

“I can’t believe that this Legislature has shirked their duty so badly,” Crist said. “How arrogant can a Legislature be? I can’t believe that they would have that much of a lack of respect for the people of Florida.”

Neither the House nor the Senate debated the issue itself. Instead, both chambers debated whether the drilling ban proposal should be debated.

As scores of drilling opponents looked on wearing “Let the People Vote” stickers, the House voted 67-44 to curtail debate after 10 minutes, and senators followed with a vote of 18 to 16.

Two Democratic senators who sided with Republicans played key roles in blocking a vote on the measure: Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, and Gary Siplin, D-Orlando. Their influence was magnified by the absences of three Democrats and two moderate Republicans who are both Crist allies.

Eight Republican senators, four from the Tampa Bay region, voted against ending the session prematurely. They were Lee Constantine of Altamonte Springs, Victor Crist of Tampa, Paula Dockery of Lakeland, Mike Fasano of New Port Richey, Dennis Jones of Treasure Island, Evelyn Lynn of Ormond Beach, Steve Oelrich of Gainesville and Alex Villalobos of Miami, who sponsored the drilling ban, and who threw in the towel when the House adjourned after 49 minutes.

“I can’t prevail because they left,” Villalobos said.

In the House, four Republicans sided with Democrats in support of debating the ban. They were Reps. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa and three Miami lawmakers: Reps. Marcelo Llorente, Julio Robaina, and Juan Zapata. One House Democrat, Rep, Leonard Bembry of Greenville, voted with Republicans to block debate.

House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, pounded his gavel at 12:02 p.m., quickly rejecting Crist’s call for a constitutional drilling ban and criticizing the governor for calling lawmakers to work on short notice.

“The fact remains that he has called us here at the last possible moment to consider a constitutional amendment for which he never proposed any language and permitted far too little time for reflection and review,” Cretul said. “This is a terrible way to propose constitutional changes.”

Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said he tried to persuade Crist and Cretul to expand the scope of the session to discuss tax relief and creation of a claims advocate, but got no takers: “Unfortunately, I did not receive a receptive audience.”

But Crist said neither legislative leader asked him to expand the session’s agenda.

Later Tuesday, the Senate convened a select committee on Florida’s economy for a two-hour hearing on relief measures.

The House immediately went home, but Cretul created six work groups of lawmakers to seek solutions ranging from economic aid to the need for tougher criminal penalties for environmental disasters.

The leaders of all six work groups are Republicans who are not part of the House leadership and who oppose Crist’s Senate candidacy. Even though the Panhandle is currently the area most directly affected by the disaster, the chairman of the work group on meeting the needs of affected areas is Rep. Marlene O’Toole, R-Lady Lake, from The Villages in Central Florida.

Two busloads of drilling opponents arrived at the Capitol only to see their hopes quickly dashed. Wearing green “Let the People Vote” stickers, 150 cheered, and some squeezed through the crowd to shake the hand of Crist, who, in the presence of eight TV cameras, stuck one of the stickers on his suit lapel.

Ed Berry, who owns a natural food store and massage therapy business in Walton County, made the two-and-a-half hour bus ride to the Capitol, and pleaded for the chance to permanently ban drilling off Florida’s coast.

“Big Oil is destroying our communities. It’s destroying our lives,” he said. “Fifteen years of hard work is going down the drain.”

Now that the Legislature has rejected Crist’s call for an anti-drilling amendment, the question is which side will reap any political benefit. Even if Crist’s anti-drilling ban were in the Constitution, it wouldn’t have prevented the Deepwater Horizon spill, which was beyond the reach of state jurisdiction.

Three leading candidates for governor all had strongly-worded reactions to the Legislature’s action. Republican Rick Scott blasted lawmakers for not taking his advice and enacting an Arizona-style immigration law. “The career politicians in Tallahassee have yet again wasted taxpayer dollars for a political stunt,” Scott said.

Scott’s GOP primary opponent, Bill McCollum, said a constitutional amendment to ban drilling was unnecessary, but if it went forward, he would favor it. “I’d want to see us address the economic and environmental concerns, particularly in the Panhandle,” added McCollum, the state attorney general.

Democrat Alex Sink, the state’s chief financial officer, called the lawmakers’ truncated session a “complete failure,” adding, “Instead of action, the tone deaf Florida Legislature has been twiddling their thumbs.”

Crist’s Republican U.S. Senate rival, Marco Rubio, described the session as “Charlie Crist’s meltdown’’ that “embodies everything that’s wrong with government today. Instead of presenting solutions, he points fingers and blames others.”

Tuesday’s short-lived session was not the shortest in Florida history. On Nov. 17, 1970, lawmakers convened for just 36 minutes to provide money for then-Gov.-elect Reubin Askews transition program.

Cristina Silva contributed to this report.

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