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This Week in Florida Politics: Like They Never Left

The ink has barely dried on the final bills lawmakers passed before they concluded the 2010 legislative session, but it became clear this week that they are probably heading back to Tallahassee before it does.

Gov. Charlie Crist said this week that he was inclined to call lawmakers back sooner rather than later to consider a constitutional ban on oil drilling in the wake of the massive oil spill in the Gulf. Republicans quickly accused the governor of talking slick to boost his no-party affiliation candidacy for the U.S. Senate, saying that a special session was not necessary because current law bans drilling (and no one is coming back to Tallahassee anytime soon to change that).

But Crist kept his foot on the gas anyway, saying that lawmakers should consider a renewable energy bill they have unplugged the past two years. Freed from trying to win the Republican Senate primary, Crist talked about renewable energy more this week than he did in the three years since he signed an executive order in 2007 calling for power companies to make 20 percent of their fuel green by the year 2020.

By week’s end, it was unclear if there would be enough votes from reluctant Republicans to put a ban on drilling in the state constitution and require more renewable energy, but there was no doubt Crist was betting there were enough who did not want to vote against drilling in an election year when floating oil and tar on beaches is also likely to be a recurring TV picture.

"I don't think its pressure at all. I think it's exactly what (lawmakers) want to do,” the newly non-Republican governor said. “Why wouldn't you want to give this decision to the people?"

Legislative leaders can protest the possible special session, but if Crist says the word, state law says they have to come back. What they do once they get here is up to them, however. Their reactions to the possibility this week revealed how deep the reservoir of anger over Crist bolting the GOP is.

"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," House Speaker Larry Cretul said in a rare swipe at anyone, much less the governor.

Incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said the governor was adept at making "bumper-sticker statements," but needs to tell lawmakers specifically what they’re coming back for before he drags them back to Tallahassee.

Democrats and supporters of a mandate that Florida power companies produce more electricity from renewable energy were more charitable this week about the likely special session, saying the political calculus about energy in Florida had changed.

"This accident has raised the consciousness level of many Floridians and hopefully it’s raised the consciousness level of many legislators," Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink said.

Rep. Joe Gibbons, who has pushed a proposal to require that 5 percent of energy production come from renewables, said lawmakers may have to settle for less than the governor’s 20 percent plan. Even his five percent proposal was more than lawmakers were willing to do in the years 2009-2010 B.S. (Before Spill).

Environmentalists, who had all but given up on the Legislature and were ready to push for a 2012 constitutional amendment, sounded hopeful notes this week too, though they braced for the possibility the Legislature would sing the same song it did in not approving the plan the last two years: that it costs too much.

"If there is a renewed appetite in part because of this tragedy in the Gulf, then perhaps we can get good policy in place and won't need to redress it in the constitutional amendment," Southern Alliance for Clean Energy lobbyist Susan Glickman said."This has been a discussion for many years now. Florida has struggled with embracing and moving the needle on developing renewable energy longer than the past two years."

There was little doubt, however, that the needle moved closer this week to a late-May special session.

WATCH WHAT YOU TWEET

All it took was 160 characters this week to encapsulate Florida tourism officials’ worst fears. A tweet from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which was later quickly retracted, reported that tar balls from the oil spill had washed ashore at Destin.

The federal agency quickly backtracked – and never said who posted the Tweet – but several news organizations, including The News Service of Florida, quickly picked up on the report. Already terrified that tourists would cancel trips on the possibility oil would mar the state’s beaches, Florida tourism officials moved quickly to correct the record.

They were joined in their outrage by U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, who said government agencies - and news organizations - should think before they tweet.

"The oil spill is a very serious matter," said Putnam, who is running for agriculture commissioner. "But it serves no purpose other than to drive people away, further hurting our tourist industry if agencies of the federal government spread false reports. The old proverb has it that a lie will have travelled half-way around the world before the truth has pulled on its boots. That was coined long before Twitter was invented."

The twust-up came as tourism industry officials were clamoring for BP, whose oil was flowing out of the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded April 20, to pick up the tab for getting the word out that Florida’s Gulf coast beaches were still sugar-white sandy.

Gov. Crist wrote to BP president Lamar McKay after attending Visit Florida’s board meeting to ask for $35 million to help launch an advertising campaign to boost North Florida tourism, which has been decimated by the image of oil-soaked beaches that, as of yet anyway, do not exist.

"This spill was not of Florida's making and, therefore, we need your urgent assistance to correct the record," Crist wrote. "This action is critical to our economic survival."

Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association president Carol Dover said that despite the hospitality industry’s most hospitable efforts, bookings for summer stays have dropped from 90 percent occupancy rates "into the teens.” Dover said that the freefall came despite industry efforts to calm fears by waiving deposit deadlines and making cancellations easier in case oil actually comes ashore.

"Businesses have truly hit the 911 button," Dover said.

It remains to be seen if BP will be on the other end of the phone, but tourism officials in Tallahassee said that the state should move forward without waiting for answer. The Visit Florida board told Crist the Department of Business and Professional Regulation has $12.5 million sitting in a hotel trust fund that could be used for an immediate ad campaign.

The economic impact of the spill was only one impact of the accident on display this week. The politics of oil were front and center in the state House District 9 Democratic primary between Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda and former Leon County Democratic Party Chairman Rick Minor. Vasilinda repeatedly touted her support for the special session to ban drilling and expand renewable energy use, but Minor dug up her comments on the floor of House in favor of a 2009 bill that would have allowed drilling as close as three-miles off the Florida close.

Vasilinda said she traded her vote for that bill for the inclusion of money for renewable energy, saying she "never supported drilling, never promoted drilling and never defended drilling." But Minor said she was flip-flopping.

“If she would review her statements from the Florida House of Representatives in April 2009, I think it shows pretty clearly she was actually defending and promoting offshore drilling,” he said. “She says very clearly 'let's support this good bill.'"

NO TAKE BACKS

Money was also an issue in politics this week, as no longer Republican Gov. Crist confirmed that he would not return money he raised in his days in the Republican U.S. Senate primary.

State GOP Chairman John Thrasher called it “unbelievable,” but Crist’s campaign spokeswoman, Michelle Todd, said no refunds would be issued since “they donated to the Charlie Crist for U.S. Senate campaign, and it’s still the Charlie Crist for U.S. Senate campaign.”

Todd said it’s unclear how many contributors to Crist’s Republican campaign want money back from his no-party-affiliated campaign. Twenty major Republican donors, many of whom had not contributed to Crist, released a letter last week demanding that the governor make refunds. Todd shrugged that off, saying contributors “gave money for a good cause and we intend to spend it on a good cause.”

Perhaps Crist is keeping the money simply because it makes him the Mr. Moneybags of the Senate race. With $7.4 million cash-on-hand according to March 30 finance reports, Crist is the best financed candidate in the race. That will likely change as he runs against the well-heeled nominees of the major parties, likely Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek, and Crist has to rely more on small-dollar Internet contributions.

“When people make a campaign contribution, they place a certain level of trust and confidence in the candidate,” Thrasher said, adding, “Gov. Crist broke that trust when he fled the Republican primary because he was down in the polls. Now, he’s keeping the money he earned under false pretenses.”

Elsewhere, Crist switched his personal voter registration from Republican to no party affiliation, “to be consistent,” he said.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The session that was may soon give way to the session that will be this week as Gov. Charlie Crist signaled he would likely call lawmakers back to Tallahassee to consider a constitutional ban on offshore oil drilling and renewable energy legislation.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Charlie Crist seems to have a spinning political compass with no true north," Sen. Don Gaetz, though all signs pointed this week to a special session.

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