Florida lawmakers block vote on drilling ban

07/20/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Today in Tallahassee, a special legislative session to discuss a constitutional ban on oil drilling in state waters ended without a vote. The Florida House adjourned in less than an hour, and Democrats are calling foul.

Gov. Charlie Crist called the session to put a drilling ban on the ballot in November. Many Republicans, like House speaker Larry Cretul, say there’s already a ban on the books, and that a constitutional amendment isn’t necessary. This is despite the House passing a bill overturning that same ban earlier this year.

"The governor's sole proposal to amend the Constitution will not put a single new skimmer off the beaches of our coast. It won't produce and new boon to protect our coast. It won't save a single business or create a single job. The governor's proposal won't force BP to be any more accountable, speed up the claims process, or prevent another disaster, hundreds of miles from our shores, from impacting our state. It would only ban an industry that is already banned."

Critics say Republicans blocked the vote out of bitterness toward Gov. Crist, who left the GOP to run for U.S. Senate without party affiliation in April. Democrats also say House Republicans are beholden to the oil industry.

But during a short debate, the House said it wants to discuss the immediate aspects of the oil disaster – including the claims process – in a special session this September, after the August primary. Cretul announced he is establishing six work groups to tackle specific problems stemming from the disaster, and offer legislative solutions for an unprecedented event.

"This is no hurricane. This is no tornado. This is no wildfire. This oil spill is a deep sea monster we've never met before. I don't know of any state government [that] knows how to defend itself against it."

Before the House voted to end the session, they elected to limit debate to ten minutes on each side. They toed party lines on both votes. Key West Democrat Ron Saunders said those in favor of curbing debate should be embarrassed.

"The arguments I've heard today are false. It's an embarrassment of this house. At this point, I think the voters should decide. If you don't decide today, they'll decide for you in November."

Darryl Rouson, a Democrat from St. Pete, said the session was a pivotal moment in Florida’s history, and that debate was essential.

"This is the floor where deliberation is to take place, where debate is to take place. This is the time. I'm afraid that if we leave here today, we've only done half of our duty, Mr. Speaker, by convening. A missed opportunity."

A poll shows 71 percent of Floridians support the chance to vote on a constitutional amendment banning drilling. House Minority Leader Franklin Sands, a Broward Democrat, said the citizens of Florida should have their say.

"They don't want off shore drilling. They don't want near shore drilling 3 to 10 miles off the coast of Florida, and that really is the issue. We were told that drilling is going to be relatively safe, and that if there would ever be a spill, we'd be able to take care of it in very,very short order."

But House Republicans, like Rob Schenk of Spring Hill, maintained that the Governor’s call for a special session was just for show.

"This special session is designed to be more about politics than bringing relief to the problems Florida is facing in the oil well blowout in Louisiana."

Punta Gorda Republican Paige Kreegel said the idea that the state can send a message to Washington by amending its own constitution defies the purpose of the document.

"The constitution of Florida is not a massage board. If you want to send them a message, send them a text. The framers of the United States Constitution were very specific about what the Constitution was. It wasn't just a collection of laws or thoughts. It's three things. It's the basic structure of our government, it's a basic duty of our government, and basic fundamental rights of a citizen."

Shortly after the brief debate in the House, that chamber adjourned without voting on a drilling ban. Then the Senate mulled over whether to vote on the ban anyway, if only for symbolic purposes. And unlike the House, the Senate wasn’t strictly divided along party lines. Republican Senator Mike Fasano of New Port Richey said it was House Republicans, and not the governor, who were playing politics.

"I know it seems as though that the members over in the house are working so hard to embarrass our governor, that they have neglected their responsibility to the people of this state, and to their constituents. They leave today, not embarrassing the governor, but embarrassing themselves. Shame on them. Shame on those members who said: Let's limit debate. Shame on those members that said: Let's not even move forward with a special session."

Lakeland Republican Paula Dockery said regardless of their views, everyone has to respect the process.

"When the governor of the state of Florida, regardless of party affiliation, regardless of election cycle of not election cycle,calls the legislature to Tallahassee to address an issue, I take to heart that that governor feels that issue is worthy of calling 160 members of the legislature to Tallahassee."

In an 18 to 16 vote, the Senate followed the House’s lead and opted not to vote on the drilling ban. Sen. Al Lawson, a Tallahassee Democrat, said he was disappointed in his colleagues.

"This is a sad day in the day of Florida. You know, when we were called into special session, I came to this special session with the idea that we were going to do what's right for the people in this state."

After the session closed, Governor Charlie Crist and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink expressed their outrage at the legislature over their refusal to debate a drilling ban.

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