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Oil Session - It's Complicated!

By James Call


Tallahassee, FL – U-S Highway 27 starts in Miami and makes a 90-degree turn at the state capital in Tallahassee to continue north into Georgia. Much of Florida's attention will be focused on that crossroads this week. James Call reports lawmakers may vote to place a constitutional amendment banning oil drilling in Florida waters on the November ballot. It would mark a sharp turn from a year ago when the House approved a pro-drilling bill.

Governor Charlie Crist called lawmakers into session without the support of Republican legislative leaders. The two men expected to lead the House and Senate next year, Senator Mike Haridopolos and Representative Dean Cannon, criticized Crist for what they said will be a four day photo opportunity. They complained Crist is using the oil spill to boost his U-S Senate candidacy without addressing the problems the spill created.

Governor Crist said, "Politics has nothing to do with this. This has everything to do with doing what's right for a place that I love. I love Florida, and I know it is already barred statutorily, but I also know that just a year ago they tried to change that statue and drill holes three miles off the coast of Florida."

Lawmakers have to pass a resolution by August 4th for a proposed constitutional amendment to be included on the November ballot. Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul will gavel lawmakers into session at noon. However, the law does not require the Legislature to meet the entire time of the call or even to take up any legislation. The question put to the governor was what it would say if the Legislature failed to act on a constitutional amendment proposal.

"I think it would say a lot - about them."

Atwater and Cretul plan to give this week's special session short attention. Their focus instead is on a September session to consider economic relief for areas hit by oil. A gubernatorial task force has been collecting data and testimony about the economic damage related to the spill in northwest Florida. Two weeks ago, Mike Sittig with the Florida League of Cities pleaded with task force members to streamline the claims process. He said counties and cities may go bankrupt cleaning up after BP.

"I think that there ought to be a presumption that if an elected body submits a claim, that there ought to be a presumption that it was for the public good and it was to clean up. But right now we need to get that cash to those local governments because they are broke. We are five billion less in property taxes and the rural counties got hit the worst. A lot of those counties, cities have used up their reserves."

Senator Don Gaetz is working on a package of proposals addressing the issue Sittig raised and others. Gaetz intends to propose economic relief for individuals, businesses and governments who have lost money because of the oil spill. Atwater and Cretul expect legislation to be ready in September. Therefore, this week may mark just the first special session on oil. Senator Durell Peaden, who represents the Panhandle and sits on the economic task force, said lawmakers will be dealing with the oil spill for years to come.

"This is going to be complicated, you know. I've talked to folks and we are going to have a problem for ten or fifteen years, I'm afraid."

The House and Senate are scheduled to convene at noon. Speaker Cretul told members to expect their stay in Tallahassee this week to be very short.