TALLAHASSEE — Following repeated trips to the Gulf in recent days, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said Tuesday he will call lawmakers in for a special session later this month to consider a constitutional ban on oil drilling in Florida’s coastal waters.
Speaking to reporters before a meeting of the cabinet, Crist said he will call lawmakers back in “a couple weeks” to consider etching an oil ban into the state’s most fundamental governing documents. If approved, voters would have a chance to address the issue in November.
“It’s important that we go ahead and have a special session,” Crist said. “After my conversation with Senate President (Jeff) Atwater, (R-Palm Beach) I’m encouraged that the Legislature is of a mind to do so as well.”
Florida already has a moratorium on drilling in coastal waters in the Gulf, but Crist said stronger protections are needed to ensure a repeat of the BP oil spill would not threaten Florida shores.
“There is no stronger place to put it,” Crist said of the drilling ban. “The constitution is the bedrock of our democracy and our governance of Florida as well as our country. It’s appropriate for the people to have the opportunity to make this call.”
The special session would also include non-constitutional measures dealing with renewable energy, a package of initiatives the governor has so far been unsuccessful in getting through the Legislature.
“‘We’ll talk about wind, nuclear, solar, natural gas and other alternative means to provide energy to our people,” Crist said.
If approved by three-fifths of the Legislature, a constitutional measure would be placed on the Nov 2 ballot. To pass, at least 60 percent of voters must approve it. If a proposal reaches the ballot, however, Crist predicts it will likely pass.
“I’m pretty confident what the people of Florida will do,” said Crist, who last month left the Republican Party and will run as a non-affiliated candidate for the U.S. Senate.
First, however any proposed amendment must garner 72 votes in the House and 24 in the Senate, a hurdle that might be hard to clear. Response to Crist’s announcement varied, with Republican Legislative leaders either combative or eerily silent on the subject of a constitutional ban.
“Bringing the Legislature back into special session to debate a constitutional amendment for November’s election that simply duplicates current law is neither immediately urgent nor truly in the best interests of protecting Floridians, or our environment, or our economy,” said House Speaker Larry Cretul in a statement. “It is merely a political ploy to promote the future of politicians.”
Atwater said a special session could cost taxpayers upwards of $40,000 daily.
With a statutory ban already in place for state waters, there is no rush to put a constitutional proposal before voters, local legislators said. Further, a constitutional ban may not be wise.
Rep. Tom Grady, R-Naples, said he would oppose a constitutional amendment banning oil exploration in state waters.
Grady said there are national security issues at stake. The United States needs to develop its own oil and gas resources to shield it from volatility elsewhere in the world particularly in the Middle East and South America, where the nation gets much of its supply.
“I’d rather have BP and Exxon drilling in the Gulf than (Venezuelan President Hugo) Chavez,” said Grady, referring to Chavez publicly anti-American stance.
News of the special session drew mixed reaction in Southwest Florida.
A Republican Party leader in Collier County called it “a crass political maneuver” by Crist.
“It smacks of a political nature rather than getting the business of Florida done,” said Frank Schwerin, chairman of the GOP executive committee.
Collier Commission Chairman Fred Coyle called the special session “wonderful” but said a ban on drilling in state waters alone still brings the rigs too close.
Last year, commissioners sent a letter to the state Legislature to object to a proposal to allow drilling within three miles of the coast.
Commissioners said drilling should come no closer than 25 miles from Southwest Florida.
On Marco Island, city council Chairman Frank Recker said talk of a constitutional ban was too reactionary.
He said nobody knows what sort of technology will exist in the future that might make a repeat of the Deepwater Horizon disaster impossible.
“When you tinker with your ultimate law (the constitution) you have to do it very carefully,” Recker said.