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Weekly Roundup: Oil and Political Hot Water

The plotline of Florida’s summer of oil got a little thicker this week.

Tarballs started making their way onto Pensacola Beach as sheen from the Deepwater Horizon rig neared the state’s Gulf coastline for the first time since the April 20 disaster. State leaders including Gov. Charlie Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink all made detours to the Florida Panhandle – with political careers and the state’s tourist industry now at stake.

Crist also upped the ante on British Petroleum – requesting an additional $50 million from the company to help offset cleanup and cover economic damage and another $100 million for long-term monitoring of the oil threat.

As the oil approached, Crist took to the airwaves, becoming a steady television presence.

“Of course we’re angry. We’re frustrated, we’re concerned, you know, it’s very discouraging,” Crist told CNN. “But I also have a responsibility to lead. And in order to be able to lead, you’ve got to keep a cool head to win a hot game. And this is a hot game.”

The oil spill also gave Crist a good diversion from the week’s major political event – the arrest of former Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer on six felony counts, with two charges each carrying a potential 30-years in prison. Greer is accused of skimming off more than $125,000 from the state GOP last year through a company he set up with former party executive director Delmar Johnson, who is cooperating with state investigators.

Through his lawyer, Damon Chase, Greer said he is innocent -- a victim of politics.

THE GREER SLICK

But Greer’s own political toxicity is likely to spread. Crist and his independent campaign for U.S. Senate are certain to be fouled by the demise of his hand-picked party boss who, in a touch of irony, is the first major bust of the statewide grand jury Crist asked the Florida Supreme Court to empanel last year.

Within hours of Greer’s arrest, Republican U.S. Senate contender Marco Rubio had posted a Web ad attempting to lash Crist to the disgraced chairman. Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott also tried to tar his GOP rival, Bill McCollum, by calling Greer the “kingmaker” for the attorney general.

Democratic Party Chair Karen Thurman sought to bring McCollum deeper into the scandal, accusing Statewide Prosecutor William Shepherd of steering the Greer investigation away from the attorney general, after personally donating $500 to his campaign.

While prosecutors have completed at least the first phase of the Greer probe, the remainder of the Florida summer will remain politically hot. Plenty of Capital-watchers expect more charges to emerge, possibly stemming from the $7 million in party credit-card spending rung-up during Greer’s three-year reign as GOP boss, or from campaign contributions that flowed in-and-out of party coffers.

THE SENATOR’S SON

Democrats mostly feasted on the Republican Party woes this week. But they drew their own wild card with the declared candidacy of Lawton “Bud” Chiles III, the son of the late Democratic senator and governor, who said he will run for governor as an independent.

Bud Chiles plans to run an outsider campaign – shunning corporate money while seeking support by navigating the narrow channel between voter disdain for Florida’s current state power structure and his family’s historic place in that pantheon.

As an independent, Chiles heads straight for the November ballot and a collision with presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink. While he may be the longest of shots, the 57-year-old political son is still a factor – with any votes coming Chiles’ way almost certain to be peeled away from Sink’s Democratic base.

Watch for Democrats to continue to exert pressure on Chiles to fold.

THE BILLS COME DUE

Amid the oil and political hot water, some policy issues did get settled this week.

Crist decided legislation pivoting on Florida homeowners.

He signed into law a measure requiring property appraisers to lower the values of homes – and tax bills – for the thousands of Floridians plagued by defective drywall. Crist then vetoed legislation that would have allowed insurance companies to raise their homeowners’ rates by as much as 10 percent without going through a lengthy regulatory review.

Crist cited “very difficult economic times,” for the veto – saying he would side with consumers over an insurance industry he has forced to play Wile E. Coyote to his Roadrunner during his term as chief executive.

Legislation bolstering firefighter death benefits, 911 training, and adding more advisors to the state’s public investment board also were okayed by Crist, as the remaining measures from the 2010 Legislature wind down. He also signed a bill banning the ownership of pythons and other invasive reptiles.

The lone bill still not sent to Crist for his review is the controversial HB 1143, which would require women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound and have it described to them in many cases. The legislation has been withheld by House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, apparently in an attempt to draw more calls, letters and E-mails in support of a measure Crist has indicated he may veto.

But by Friday, the calendar turned on Day 35 since lawmakers approved the bill.

Although Crist signed into law the state’s $70.2 billion budget last Friday, this week a Leon County judge issued a decision that could shape where future state dollars go. Circuit Judge Frank Sheffield ruled that lawmakers cannot redirect civil court fees to patch up other areas of the state budget – saying such moves are unconstitutional.

Legislative leaders didn’t immediately respond to the ruling – which could affect millions of dollars scattered through the state budget. But the case, brought by lawyers concerned about court delays caused by the diversion of needed fees, is likely to eventually end in the state Supreme Court, attorneys from all sides said.

STORIES OF THE WEEK: Oil -- coming; Jim Greer – going, maybe for more than 30 years.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Greer has become the Deepwater Horizon of the Republican Party,” said David Johnson, a longtime GOP consultant and former party executive director. “He just continues to spew out a black goo that seems to spread everywhere.”

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