Hard Feelings Spill Over in Oil Session
Gov. Charlie Crist and legislative leaders took turns Tuesday blasting each other for the ill-fated special session he called to get a constitutional amendment on November’s ballot to ban offshore oil-drilling in Florida waters.
But in the end, the truncated session – which expired in less than 2 ½-hours, rather than the four days called for by Crist – may actually serve the political purposes of most of the participants. Of course, efforts to help Floridians hurt by the economic and environmental damage caused by the oil spill were left to languish.
“I am significantly disappointed for the people of Florida,” Crist said midafternoon Tuesday, after the Senate had followed the House in adjourning. “I can’t believe this Legislature has shirked its duty so badly.”
Crist, though, clearly foresaw Tuesday’s developments, with House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, signaling since last week that he had no intention of taking up the proposed ballot measure in a chamber that only two years ago voted overwhelmingly to open state waters to drilling.
But Crist, a no-party candidate for U.S. Senate, managed to emerge from what has quickly been dubbed the “gavel-and-gone” session, with another target for his maverick campaign – the establishment politics of the Florida Legislature.
“How arrogant can a Legislature be?” Crist said, adding, “I call this Legislature the do-nothing Legislature. And I’m going to give them hell for it.”
Crist said the shortcircuited session demonstrated “an arrogance of power.“ Of lawmakers, Crist said, “They’ve lost their way.”
Crist, though, also has a bullseye on his back – from lawmakers.
House and Senate Republicans wasted no time Tuesday in ridiculing the governor for ordering the special session but confining it to the drilling ban – which they diminished as seeking to put in the constitution a prohibition that has existed in state law for more than 20 years.
It was all about Crist’s campaign, they said.
“There was a selfishness about the agenda that was unfortunate and unforgivable,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.
Crist’s narrow agenda also instantly gave Republican opponents a weapon – with Cretul among those offering the paradoxical argument that more urgent action was needed, just not now.
The gavel-and-gone session also has provided the underpinnings of the Republican-ruled Legislature’s bid to wrest the oil recovery issue away from the governor and his U.S. Senate campaign, bringing it back under the domain of lawmakers.
“Simple solutions designed to produce sound bytes, photo-ops and political attacks will do nothing to help Floridians in need recover,” Cretul assured House members.
Seeking not to be overlooked in the political stagecraft of Tuesday, Republican gubernatorial nominee Rick Scott blasted the “career politicians” in Tallahassee for failing to take up Arizona-style immigration reform. His rival, Attorney General Bill McCollum, took sides with Republican legislative leaders who rejected Crist and who are contributing heavily to his campaign, by looking ahead to a special session that will provide “meaningful relief.”
“You know you’re in an election year when everybody is dealing with symbolic political statements and each side feels they can gain something at the expense of an opponent,” said Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida government professor. “Crist has fundamentally altered his political positions a half-dozen times now – the latest being his call for an oil-drilling ban less than two years after he was for drilling. But he comes out of this smelling like a rose. Go figure.”
Polls show a plurality of Floridians oppose offshore drilling, and a survey released Monday by environmental groups showed that 71 percent of voters wanted a chance to cast a ballot on the fate of drilling this fall. But with an Aug. 4 deadline for November ballot measures now looking out-of-reach, House and Senate leaders touted the prospects of a 2012 vote on a ban.
Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, pledge to call a follow-up special session in September to tackle issues ranging from BP payments to the state, compensation for businesses hurt by the spill, property-tax breaks and toughening environmental penalties.
That presumably would make the Legislature the pivot-point for recovery efforts – in an attempt to shove Crist to the sidelines.
“Among Republicans, the love is gone for Charlie Crist,” said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, chairman of the Florida Republican Party.
Atwater, a candidate for chief financial officer, insisted he was eager to act now on other legislation aimed at helping the state recover from the tourism downturn but was ignored by Crist and rebuffed by House leaders.
“Am I frustrated? Well, maybe not with the House. Maybe not with the governor uniquely,” Atwater said. “But collectively, as the three of us, why can’t we go to work on these things?”
He conceded, though, “Everyone may have a different place on this. But I’ve been there and I’ve seen it,” Atwater said. “I’ve had lunch with charter fishermen who’ve looked me in the eye and told me `I may have lost a season, I may have lost a livelihood.’ That’s real.”
Crist said there was no point in simply ordering lawmakers to return and keeping them in Tallahassee.
“Why call them back?” Crist asked. “To watch them fail again and again and again?”
But also exposed among the hard feelings left after the session is how little progress the state has made in trying to confront the effects of the gulf spill, which began April 20 – exactly three months ago and a mere nine days before Crist abandoned the Republican Party and launched his independent run.
Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, criticized lawmakers for not acting more swiftly on issues ranging from accelerating claims recovery to providing property-tax breaks for businesses and residents.
Indeed, Cretul’s move Tuesday to establish a half-dozen workgroups in advance of a possible September session is that chamber’s first real step. The Senate’s Select Committee on Florida’s Economy met Tuesday at the Capitol in only its second hearing on measures the state could take toward spill recovery.
Even before lawmakers pulled the plug on Tuesday’s session, Sink said she was frustrated with the Legislature’s pace.
“I have a little bit of a different definition of speedy,” Sink said.