Crist and Lawmakers Set Toxic Course for Special Session
Gov. Charlie Crist raced ahead Tuesday with plans to call a reluctant Legislature back into special session this month on oil-drilling and energy – a move critics say is designed more to advance his U.S. Senate campaign than protect Florida’s threatened coastline.
Crist said he is leaning toward a session beginning May 24 – just over a month after BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform caught fire and sank off Louisiana, killing 11 workers and spawning an oil spill that continues to pump more than 200,000 gallons daily into the Gulf of Mexico.
“Whether it be wind, solar, natural gas, nuclear – what have you – to wean ourselves off this dependence on this dirty stuff (oil) is just the right thing to do,” Crist said Tuesday, adding it was important to send a strong message opposing offshore drilling, at least in the relatively narrow width of coastline Florida controls.
The message: “Not now. No way,” Crist said.
But Crist’s talk of a special session further corroded his already tenuous relationship with Republican legislative leaders who said they feared being turned into props for a session dominated by the governor’s political stagecraft.
“I have to believe there may be more U.S. Senate campaign politics in the governor’s support of a special session than there is a need to deal with any real issues,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.
Florida law already bans drilling in the state’s coastal waters, although legislators for the past two years have talked of lifting that 20-year prohibition, a change now considered dead by some for at least a generation.
But Gaetz also was angered by what he said was the governor’s lack of response to a letter he sent last week outlining 10 steps the state should take to deal with the oil spill off his district’s Gulf beaches, including increased tourism advertising, state loans to area businesses, and more local control of cleanup efforts now directed largely by federal officials.
Crist’s demand for action comes even after he abandoned his opposition to offshore drilling in 2008 when vying for the vice-presidential slot on Republican John McCain’s ticket and effectively abandoned his push for renewable energy when it proved a negative in courting Republican voters for his U.S. Senate bid.
Crist’s return to calling for Florida utilities to play a lead role in developing alternative energy has gained voice only since he became a non-party-affiliated candidate for Senate – 10 days after the oil-rig explosion.
“Charlie Crist seems to have a spinning political compass with no true north,” Gaetz said.
Crist also was blistered by House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, who said he suspected political motives were driving the governor’s move.
“Bringing the Legislature back into special session to debate a constitutional amendment for November’s election that simply duplicates current law is neither immediately urgent nor truly in the best interests of protecting Floridians, or our environment, or our economy; it is merely a political ploy to promote the future of politicians,” Cretul said.
Crist, however, insisted that the oil-rig disaster had changed Floridians’ views and heightened the need to diversify the state and nation’s energy portfolio. Indeed, a Mason-Dixon poll released last weekend showed 55 percent of Florida voters now oppose offshore drilling, with only 35 percent supporting it – a reversal of numbers from a year ago.
“What’s important is that we all stay focused and we put forward a ban on drilling off the coast of Florida – I think there’s consensus there, but the people should have a right to vote on it,” Crist said. “Then look to alternative resources for energy that can make us cleaner, more productive and more efficient.”
Crist also downplayed a political motive behind the session.
“I think the people of Florida can win, and I think the Legislature appreciates that fact,” Crist said, adding he wasn’t’ trying to put lawmakers into a political box. “I don’t think it’s pressure at all. I think it’s exactly what (lawmakers) want to do. Why wouldn’t you want to give this decision to the people?”
Along with Floridians’ mirror-image response on drilling, the Mason-Dixon survey showed Crist holding a six-percentage point lead in the Senate race over Republican rival Marco Rubio and Democratic contender Kendrick Meek. Most of Crist’s supporters also are registered Democrats, the poll showed.
That political dynamic played out in reaction to Crist’s special session call, with several Democrats praising the governor’s response. Some also acknowledged that Crist was positioned to emerge successful – even if the Republican-controlled Legislature fails to advance a drill-ban amendment and reaches consensus on an energy plan that stymied them during the recently completed regular session.
“I think it is a `no lose’ for him,” said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, a candidate for attorney general who last week wrote Crist urging that he call a session to put the amendment on the November ballot. “It’s one of those times when he’s got both policy and politics on his side.”
Gelber said that Republican leaders have a “deep animus” toward Crist since he abandoned the GOP and vetoed legislation sought by party leaders, including a teacher tenure ban and a campaign finance measure that would have enhanced the power of legislative leaders.
“But they don’t have the megaphone he has,” Gelber said of Republican lawmakers. “The governor has the biggest megaphone of any politician in this state.”
Incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said the governor was adept at making “bumper-sticker statements,” but that he owed lawmakers a clear outline of what actions he was seeking to emerge from the session.
Haridopolos said lawmakers needed at least a couple weeks to study whatever Crist presents or the governor risks calling a session likely to collapse without agreement.
“Look, everyone is for people having health coverage and clean energy, but the difficulty is doing the heavy lifting and putting together legislation,” Haridopolos said. “History shows that when you go into a special session with a plan, it tends to work. But if you go in only with a hope, it tends to collapse.”