Get Ready for a Special Session
Calling it too important to leave to his successor, Gov. Charlie Crist called Thursday for a special session to ask voters to ban oil drilling off Florida’s coast – even though he doesn’t have buy-in from the House on the issue.
Crist’s call for lawmakers to return to town July 20 likely sets up a standoff with the Legislature – particularly the House – over the matter. Crist’s proposed amendment has a Senate sponsor, but so far nobody to carry the bill in the House.
Officially, Crist called for a four-day session to craft and pass a proposed constitutional ban on oil and gas exploration in state waters. If he can get it through the Legislature, it would go on the ballot in November for voter approval.
“I think it’s important that we put this into our constitution,” Crist told reporters at a hastily scheduled news conference. “Certainly, I think it’s important that we give the people of Florida the opportunity to make this call.”
Crist has been suggesting that lawmakers should return to propose a constitutional ban for several weeks, since not long after the April 20 explosion of the BP Deepwater Horizon rig that led to the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.
But with nearshore oil drilling already barred by a moratorium and no appetite in the wake of the spill to push for new drilling, House leaders have resisted. Several have said that Crist has been posturing – seeking the constitutional ban for political reasons. Crist is running for the U.S. Senate.
If a constitutional ban is to be put on the ballot by the Legislature, it has to be done soon. The deadline for getting a measure approved for the November ballot is the end of the day, Aug. 3.
Crist said he didn’t want to wait any longer to address the issue.
“I feel a compelling duty to protect Florida,” Crist said. “I’m going to be governor for about six more months and I think I would not be doing my duty as governor if I didn’t call for this special session.”
Crist said other issues arising from the spill could wait.
“This is a rifle shot,” Crist said of the narrow legislative call.
Several lawmakers have said there are other issues resulting from the spill that could require attention, most specifically the drop in property values expected along the Gulf coast.
Opponents of a constitutional ban say the existing moratorium on drilling in the Gulf makes a constitutional ban unnecessary, at least immediately. The argument is that lawmakers could easily pass a proposed amendment next March during the regular session.
Crist, who is running for Senate with no party affiliation and has been at odds with the Republican Legislature on several issues in the last few months , said he thinks the drilling prohibition needs to be stronger because future Legislatures could easily lift the ban.
“I know it’s barred statutorily, l but I also know that just last year they tried to change that statute and drill holes three miles off the coast of Florida,” Crist said. “That’s why … the will of the people should be heard on this.”
In order to put the issue on the November ballot, the proposal must be approved by the three-fifths of the House and Senate. To pass, it must then garner 60 percent of the popular vote.
Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, generally supports a ban. Incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, has opposed a constitutional ban.
The proposal will be sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami.
While Republicans have resisted a special session, Democrats have been pushing for one and praised Crist for it on Thursday.
“I commend the governor for agreeing to call for a special session to ban near beach oil drilling, despite the resistance from special interests and some members of the Legislature,” said state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the Democratic candidate for governor. But she and other Democrats urged Crist and lawmakers to take on other issues as well.
“In addition to banning near beach drilling, the special session should also tackle the urgent needs for our business owners and state, including much-needed small business relief, a more streamlined claims process, and the creation of an environmental endowment for additional research,” Sink said.
With criticism expected that he was grandstanding, or calling the special session to boost his Senate campaign, Crist said the issue was of paramount importance, and it was a simple call.
“The rightness of this is so clear, especially with what we have experienced in the past 80 days or so in the Gulf of Mexico,” Crist said. “This is an issue that is so important to the future our state, to the economy of Florida.”