Senators Split on Whether to Take Session Vote Despite House's Departure

Tallahassee, FL – Democrats knew what they were up against going into the special session. House members held a news conference hours before the opening gavel laying out the reasons why a vote on the proposal was necessary. Even Senate Republicans had concerns about the potential for a fruitless trip to Tallahassee and tried in vain to include other business alongside the proposed amendment. Gina Jordan reports.

Since Florida has a law banning offshore drilling, a common refrain among Republicans has been that there's no need to also put such a ban in the state constitution. Democratic Representative Ron Saunders calls that the height of hypocrisy considering what happened with the marriage amendment in 2008.

"Florida already has a law against gay marriage, but petition organizers say it should be put into the constitution to protect against future whims of the state Legislature. Now what legislators actually supported this? We have the smiling faces of Representative Larry Cretul, the Republican Speaker, Representative Dean Cannon, the Republican Speaker-designate, and other representatives such as Will Weatherford and Chris Dorworth. So just two years ago, the Republican legislative leadership said even though something's already illegal, let's go ahead and put it on the ballot."

Pleading for lawmakers not to choose a quick exit, Saunders noted that the Republican Party of Florida contributed $300-thousand to that effort. The main difference is that the marriage amendment made it onto the ballot via petition drive, not through a special session, and it was subsequently approved by voters.
The Senate convened about forty minutes late. The House was already in debate over a motion to adjourn without taking up the amendment. Senator Mike Fasano gave the opening prayer.

"As lawmakers and public servants, we have been called to the Capitol to debate and consider an issue of the utmost importance. While emotions are high and feelings run deep on the issue of the proposed constitutional amendment that we must consider, I ask you to bring clarity to our thoughts and a sense of purpose that is greater than ourselves. Help us be civil, especially me."

In his address to the chamber, Senate President Jeff Atwater said he would have preferred conducting a broader scope of business but got no support from the Governor's Office or the House. So the only bill they could consider was a constitutional amendment banning offshore drilling. To keep the trip from being a total loss, Atwater asked the Select Committee on Florida's Economy to update members on their research into the impact of the oil spill.

"The Select Committee and the Senate staff have committed a great deal of time and energy to finding and developing meaningful responses, and are committed to continuing to expend whatever time and talent is necessary to provide a meaningful, long-lasting recovery effort."

Atwater, who is running for Florida Chief Financial Officer, told Senators they would likely be called back to Tallahassee in the near future to consider other measures, like suspending permit requirements and creating a Florida Claims Advocate. He said the oil threatens sensitive environmental resources and risks the welfare of families and small businesses for generations to come. But once the House adjourned, the Senate's hands were tied.

"Thank you, Mr. President; the motion is to sine die."

The chamber was split on whether to take a vote anyway. Democrat Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, also a candidate for Florida Attorney General, wanted to send a message that Floridians deserve a right to weigh in.

"We're being denied that opportunity, and I frankly believe the only reason we're being denied is because our colleagues across the hall have believed that their contempt for the governor frankly is more important than their affection for their constituents."

Republican Mike Fasano of New Port Richey also wanted to take up the resolution. He chided House members who chose to adjourn so quickly.

"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 the special session."

Republican Nancy Detert's district includes Siesta Key, considered one of the best beaches in the world, but she saw no point in continuing.

"We have a three-legged stool here and we're only one leg of the stool, and we can't pass a law all by ourselves. So, I'm sympathetic to the voters of Florida who are deprived of a vote because now I'm deprived of a vote also."

Republican Don Gaetz represents five coastal areas that are ground zero for oil, stretching from Bay County to Escambia County in the Panhandle. He acknowledged the Senate president's futile efforts to add more proposals to the agenda.

"Let's not just point at the House and say it's their fault. The fact is that the governor called the special session and refused to expand the call and dismissively said when we raised the economic and environmental and legal issues, he dismissively said those, quote, were not time sensitive to him."

Gaetz asked Senators not to give him an empty symbol to take home by taking a pointless vote, but to pay attention to the Select Committee workshop and look ahead to another special session in a month or so. The Senate then voted 18 - 16 to adjourn, taking no action.