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Drilling Debate Begins Again

Offshore oil-drilling has been dividing Florida lawmakers – but now even the committees overseeing the issue are being dissected for signs of bias.

Sen. Alex diaz de la Portilla, whose wife, Claudia, is among 31 lobbyists representing the pro-drilling Florida Energy Associates, is catching heat from critics who want the Miami lawmaker to resign his chairmanship of a Senate energy panel in line to hear an eventual bill.

And a House policy council holding a workshop Wednesday is emerging as a potentially rigorous test for those pushing the drilling initiative – since almost half the council represent Gulf coastal districts.

Opening up the Gulf to more drilling has been thought to be an issue a Republican-led Legislature is keen to push through, but it may not be the sure-thing some think.

“I voted for drilling last year to open up the discussion,” said Rep. Doug Holder, a Sarasota Republican. “But there’s no way I want to see drilling three miles off Siesta Key or anything.”

Legislation approved 70-43 by the House last spring would have given the governor and Cabinet authority to lift a ban on offshore oil-drilling in exchange for Florida getting a share of royalties for oil extracted from below the Gulf floor.

But the measure also would have allowed drilling as close as three miles to the coastline.

“Sure, we’re getting more calls in the district from people concerned about drilling than supporting it,” Holder conceded. “But that’s why I think it’s important we start talking about it. We have to understand what this issue is all about.”

The House Select Policy Council on Strategic and Economic Planning has scheduled an afternoon-long hearing on the drilling proposal. While the panel is chaired by the Legislature’s leading proponent of drilling, Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, the council review may not be a slam-dunk for advocates.

The 18-member council includes eight representatives whose districts hug the Gulf coast. In the Florida Senate, which rejected the oil-drilling initiative last year, at least four Gulf coast Republican senators say they won’t consider the measure.

“The purpose of this council is to take the long view,” Cannon told the News Service of Florida. “I’m hoping that this hearing is more about listening and learning than anything else.”

Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, said there are plenty of questions about the oil-drilling proposal – especially from those whose districts face the Gulf of Mexico, where supporters say rich reserves of oil could sustain state financing for years.

“At this point, we have no idea what the scope of this year’s bill is going to be,” Fitzgerald said. “But for anyone from this region, it’s a sensitive subject.”

The House vote in the spring divided mostly along party lines, with Democrats opposed. But the Senate is seen as the venue where the fight’s second round will be fiercest.

Backers of the idea say new revenue is needed to replace the billions in federal stimulus money that is currently propping up Florida’s budget – but slated to be gone next year.

Florida Energy Associates, a group of independent oil producers advancing the drilling proposal, spent $234,000 on lobbying efforts during the spring session and contributed $40,000 to the Florida Republican Party and $30,000 to the state Democratic Party over the past three months, campaign finance records show.

Cannon said Wednesday’s hearing will be the first of several on oil-drilling.

Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, has indicated that given the division within the Senate, he’s not eager to take up the issue, with the proposal clearly off the table for what is shaping up as a December special session on rail proposals and possibly Indian gambling.

Cannon conceded, “We’re a long way from having a bill.”

Atwater, though, has given the go-ahead for diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican, to continue chairing the Energy, Communications and Public Utilities Committee, where oil-drilling legislation is expected to eventually get a hearing.

Diaz de la Portilla also has said he would not refrain voting on the matter – even though his wife lobbies the issue. Similarly, new Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, was a lobbyist for Florida Energy Associates during last spring’s session.

The familiar and professional ties between the diaz de la Portillas would be prohibited under legislation recently filed by Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, also a critic of offshore drilling.

Dockery’s proposal (SB 438) was filed with the Senate last week, although she said it is the third straight year it has been introduced. It would bar legislators from casting votes on legislation that could result in a personal gain for themselves, relatives, business associates or employers.

Dockery said the measure wasn’t prompted by diaz de la Portilla, but said it “needs to be passed.

“I think we wouldn’t be discussing this type of thing if we had such legislation,” Dockery said. “In Tallahassee, people live in a bubble. But we have a lot to do to restore the confidence of the people in Florida.”

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