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Politics

Session's quick end denies Crist a win but may give boost

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 09:13 AM
TALLAHASSEE -

Legislators took little time Tuesday to adjourn from their special session without considering a proposed ban on near-shore oil drilling.

The move put Gov. Charlie Crist in the company of hundreds of spurned citizens who had come to Tallahassee to convince lawmakers to let people vote on the governor's proposed constitutional ban.

It also put lawmakers, mostly Republican, in a position of explaining that they care about Florida's environment and businesses that have been hurt by the BP oil disaster but didn't care for Crist's plan.

Crist, an ex-Republican running as a no-party candidate for U.S. Senate had called this week's session to consider placing a constitutional ban on November's ballot. He said Tuesday he would not call lawmakers back for a new legislative session to try again.

"Why call them back and watch them fail again and again and again?" he said, reaming lawmakers for being a "do-nothing Legislature."

"I'm going to give them hell for it,'' Crist added. "It is embarrassing to watch.''

Many Republicans on Tuesday continued to slam the session as politically motivated and unnecessary. House Speaker Larry Cretul made good on his pledge to members that the session wouldn't last long, a move that House Democrats complained was equally political to punish the governor.

The GOP-controlled House's decision, mostly along party lines, to reject the drilling ban lessens Senate candidate Crist's chances to capitalize on the issue in November, said Aubrey Jewett, political scientist at the University of Central Florida. But pressing his emotionally-charged agenda -- and railing against the Legislature for failing to act -- is likely to score Crist some points with voters anyway.

"I think in the short run this will help Charlie Crist's poll numbers,'' Jewett said.

The House by a 67-44 vote adjourned 50 minutes after convening without ever taking up Crist's plan.

House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, argued that Crist's proposal to ban on oil drilling in state waters, up to 10 miles from the Gulf Coast, "won't clean up one tarball" and "won't bring one tourist here."

Cannon, a Winter Park Republican who spearheaded the House's effort last year to lift the statutory ban on near-shore drilling, tried to do the same this year until the Deepwater Horizon explosion. He has pledged not to revisit the issue again.

House Democrats lambasted Republican leaders for refusing to let voters have their say. After the brief session, however, incoming House Minority Leader Ron Saunders noted the political opportunity for Democrats arising from their defeat.

"It helps in [the races for] swing seats where this is an issue -- particularly the coastal ones" like St. Petersburg Republican Rep. Jim Frishe, said Saunders, of Key West.

Frishe, an adamant opponent to drilling off the Gulf Coast and one of only a handful of Republicans who voted in 2009 not to lift the statutory ban, called that "baloney."

He said he voted Tuesday for ending the session partly because Crist's amendment addressed only drilling for oil, not natural gas. "I have a beach district; I get what the dangers are."

Senate President Jeff Atwater told reporters he supported Crist's amendment, but faulted both the governor and Speaker Cretul for refusing to expand the focus of the session to address immediately the economic impacts of the oil gusher on the Florida Panhandle.

"I'm not in the business of theater," said Atwater, a Republican is running for state Chief Financial Officer. "I really want to get something done here."

Atwater and Cretul both stressed on Tuesday the need to focus on economic and claims assistance for those residents and businesses, and have already agreed to return this fall to do so.

Crist denied Tuesday that Atwater had approached him about expanding this session's agenda. House Republicans argued they need more time to study and propose solutions, and before adjourning, Cretul announced the creation of "work groups" to dissect the relief issue.

Cretul left open the opportunity to propose the same ballot question at a later time, but doing would mean placing it on the 2012 ballot at the earliest -- when Crist would no longer benefit.

It would also deny Democrats a means of drawing more voters to the polls this year, said Democratic Rep. Geraldine Thompson of Orlando. "This is an effort to suppress that kind of turnout because it would not work in favor of Republicans."

Sen. John Thrasher of Jacksonville, chairman of the state Republican Party, dismissed the question of voter turnout, saying "I'm not a guru when it comes to that kind of scientific stuff."

While support for the ballot amendment was stronger and more bipartisan in the Senate, it was by no means unanimous.

Sen. Ronda Storms, a Valrico Republican, said the drilling question can wait while the Legislature addresses the Panhandle's needs. "We can put it on the ballot for 2012. It's going to have the same impact.''

In the end, the upper chamber voted 18-16 not to vote on the measure , once the House had already adjourned -- bringing what was scheduled to be a four-day session, at an estimated cost of $50,000 per day -- to a close after less than three hours.

The Senate did try to salvage part of the day with a committee hearing on proposals to help communities hurt by the BP disaster. The Select Committee on Florida's Economy heard Tuesday from half a dozen people on everything from whether the state is in a position to sue BP to ensuring its oysters are safe to eat.

The committee's goal, said chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is to work with the House to have a set of proposals ready to go when the Legislature meets next.

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