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How Much Clout Will Crist Have in Special Session?

With divisive rumblings in both political parties over gambling and offshore oil-drilling, Gov. Charlie Crist is facing a likely special session this fall that could shine a glaring light on his lame-duck status.

The state’s well-connected pari-mutuel industry, with 27 horse- and dog-tracks and jai-alai frontons scattered from South Florida to the Panhandle, has emerged united against terms of the gaming compact the governor’s office reached this week with the Seminole Tribe.

The opposition appears ready to create anti-compact votes in the Legislature that cut across party lines and regions – making it tough for Crist to secure the Seminole deal that would bring the state $6.8 billion over 20 years.

“We’re supposed to get about $150 million-a-year from the Seminoles,” said Senate Rules Chairman Alex Villalobos, R-Miami. “But I think a lot of people are thinking, why shouldn’t it be $400 million? There’s too many questions about this compact for it to go through.”

What has been discussed as an October special session would be the Legislature’s first since Crist announced in May that he would not seek re-election, but instead run for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Republican Mel Martinez.

Whether Crist is successful this fall also may provide a glimpse into what kind of clout the outgoing governor retains heading into next spring’s regular session – his last as chief executive – when state economists warn an almost $1 billion budget gap will loom.

“He’s always had the golden touch,” said Brian Ballard, a major fund-raiser for Crist, who represents Palm Beach Kennel Club, however, and so opposes him on the Seminole pact. “But I don’t think he’s on such a good path right now.”

Ballard called the compact an “awful deal,” that he expects the Legislature to revamp. But he still expects the governor to play a central role in the rewrite.

“I don’t think you get another compact without the governor’s involvement,” he added.

Pari-mutuels are looking to scuttle the compact, because it gives the tribe sole authority to lucrative blackjack and slot machines outside Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Tracks and frontons elsewhere could offer no-limit poker and extended cardroom hours, but that’s not enough to offset the competitive advantage the deal gives Seminoles, industry lobbyists say.

“I don’t know what the governor’s office was thinking with this deal,” said Ron Book, a lobbyist whose clients include West Flagler Kennel Club. “It’s full of `gotchas’ for the industry and the state.”

Apparently undaunted, Crist also appears ready to increase the political stakes, having floated the possibility of adding to the potential session on gambling another volatile measure – legislation giving the governor and Cabinet authority to lift the state’s ban on oil-drilling in Florida waters.

As he gears up his Senate campaign, Crist also is expected to tie any offshore drilling measure to support for a version of the executive order he signed more than a year ago, requiring that 20 percent of Florida’s electricity be generated by renewable sources by the year 2020.

While the House okayed the oil-drilling plan during the spring legislative session, many senators continue to appear dug in. And some acknowledge that the governor’s diminished status may play into the final outcome.

“When you’re talking about oil-drilling, this can’t become something that’s seen as a quick fix for someone’s political campaign,” said Sen. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, whose district contains five coastal counties in the Panhandle.

“On both oil-drilling and gambling, the governor may not be able to do as much as he did two years ago. He’s got a heavy lift in front of him,” Peaden added.

1 Responses »

  1. The only card Governor Crist will hold during the next legislative session will be the threat to be a stingy U.S. Senator w.r.t. federal pork in Florida. (As a codicil to that, he may also threaten to order his proxy George Lemieux to act petty and vindictive toward any legislative district whose representative defies Governor Sunbeam). He can't play the card very convincingly, for two reasons. (1): It would weaken any promises that he might try making to the voters along the lines of being a strong, effective, bring-home-the bacon senator. (2): It presumes that any of his legislative critics in Tallahassee believe that he'll win election and that he would have any actual influence in the U.S. Senate even if he does wind up getting there.