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Senate Looks to Expand Special Session

A week before the Legislature goes into special session, there was little agreement on just what oil-related items it plans to take up, though it became clear Monday that the Senate, at least, wants to go beyond the governor’s call and provide economic relief to the spill-weary Panhandle.

The Senate’s Select Committee on the Economy on Monday discussed a list of economic issues lawmakers should address when the Legislature convenes a special session ordered by Gov. Charlie Crist to vote on a proposed state constitutional amendment to ban offshore oil drilling in Florida.

Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos implied the one issue the governor put on the agenda is meant to boost Crist’s standing rather than help those put out of work or otherwise facing hardship.

“We want to go into special session focused on solutions, not politics,” said Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who chairs the select committee, said at the Monday meeting – which was held on the road in spill-worried Pensacola - that Senate President Jeff Atwater has told him that if he and House Speaker Larry Cretul can agree, a slate of economic issues will definitely be a part of the special session. But the deadline is ticking with lawmakers due in Tallahassee July 20. The committee heard presentations on everything from property tax relief to the process by which BP pays claims to those who lost money because of the spill, to unemployment compensation.

Crist hastily announced last week that he wanted lawmakers to examine an offshore oil drilling ban that , if approved by lawmakers, would go on the November ballot. Several Republican legislators, who overwhelmingly control both the House and Senate, have accused Crist of campaign-season grandstanding, in part because there’s already in place a moratorium on near-shore drilling and little appetite now for dropping it. A number of GOP lawmakers, including Haridopolos and Atwater, have said there are more pressing spill-related issues to address.

Democrats, while largely supportive of the proposed constitutional amendment, have also called for other issues to be taken up, ranging from an alternative energy proposal put forth by Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasinlinda, D-Tallahassee, who says she’ll file a bill on the issue, to a wide-ranging suggestion that came Monday from the party’s gubernatorial candidate, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink. She put forth an extensive proposal that included tax breaks and a speed-up of the BP claims process.

Crist had said he wanted lawmakers to solely look at the drilling ban during the July special session, and then maybe look at other issues in subsequent special session.

With House Republicans mostly united in opposing Crist's call for a constitutional amendment, it’s likely to be a Democrat that sponsors the proposal in the House. Sarasota Democratic Rep. Keith Fitzgerald has told the governor he would, though so far, it hasn’t been decided who will carry it there.

"He's got to have somebody carry it in the House," Fitzgerald said. "It's pretty straightforward. There are only so many ways you can say it's banned.”

But Fitzgerald said the constitutional ban at issue is needed.

“I do find it ironic," Fitzgerald added, "that many of the same legislators who last year were pushing for oil-drilling are now saying we don't need a constitutional amendment because it's already banned. It's really almost an amendment that protects Floridians from legislators' ideas."

In Pensacola, the select committee did not put forth a specific set of recommendations for what else could be taken up, but Gaetz told interested parties to deliver to legislative leadership any proposals that could help the state, particularly the Panhandle, rebound from the economic crisis resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

While the Senate has started to vet possible responses, House Republicans have had little to say at all about the session, which was ridiculed as unnecessary and political by Cretul when it was first suggested back in the spring.

“The speaker has special session under review,” was about all a House spokeswoman had to say Monday, adding that there hadn’t been any decisions about adding other issues to the call.

But House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, said Republicans in that chamber have no interest in taking up Crist's proposed oil-drilling prohibition at all. But he also doesn't see other measures being added to the legislative agenda. Timing and politics are key factors -- given that Republican lawmakers would need agreement from at least some members of the outnumbered Democratic caucus to secure two-thirds approval in each chamber to expand Crist's narrow call.

"How much can you get done in three or four days?" Hasner asked. "You're looking at a very short time frame. And the more issues you try to do, you increase the chance of a legislative blow-up."

Meanwhile, Panhandle lawmakers heard the bad news from state environmental officials on Monday that a shift in the wind could result in more oil on Pensacola-area beaches later this week.

“We have not a grey cloud, we have a black cloud over our heads,” said Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City.

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