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Crist-GOP split likely to overshadow action in special session

TALLAHASSEE - A proposed offshore drilling ban may quickly drown this week in a flood of election-year rancor between GOP lawmakers and a governor who abandoned their party. On its face, tomorrow's special legislative session sounded simple enough when Gov. Charlie Crist announced it on July 8. Lawmakers, he said, would return to the Capitol for four days to take up his proposal to ban near-shore oil drilling in the state Constitution. If lawmakers approved, the question would be up to voters in November. It was, of, course, anything but simple. For starters, the governor had called the Legislature back without the support of House or Senate leaders, dooming his proposal to an uncertain fate. Almost immediately, leading GOP legislators in both chambers slammed the move as a political stunt. Senate Majority Leader Alex Diaz de la Portilla panned the session as a week of nothing but "photo opportunities and sound bytes for Gov. Crist."
House Speaker Larry Cretul declared, in a letter that "rushing to amend the constitution at the last possible moment because of an accident hundreds of miles from our jurisdiction does not typify deliberation and responsible legislation." He advised House members that they won't be in Tallahassee long this week. "I don't know what's going to happen," said Democratic Rep. Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg, who is co-sponsoring Crist's resolution. "I find it incredible the Speaker Cretul and House leadership would have us come up there, basically bring us into session and then [leave] without even taking up the bill. But if that's what they want to do, it'll be up to voters to tell them what they think about it." Party politics Detractors of Crist's proposal argue it's needless since state law has long prohibited drilling in state waters, up to 10 miles into the Gulf. GOP Rep. Sandy Adams even called on lawmakers to censure the governor for what she described as wasteful spending -- an estimated $50,000 per day -- on a session "set solely to enact a redundant constitutional amendment." Crist has argued the existing ban is inadequate, noting that House lawmakers voted to lift the statutory prohibition just a year ago. Whatever their thoughts about oil drilling, Republican leaders are in no mood to hand Crist a political gift. Relations between the governor and GOP-controlled Legislature have deteriorated from tense to downright hostile since Crist bolted from the party to run for U.S. Senate as a no-party candidate. "Here we have a man who declared war on the political principles that brought him to power," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. "Of course, there is angst and mistrust among his former political allies... It's a difficult venue in which to build trust." While Crist has been drifting left to the political center -- vetoing conservative legislative proposals along the way -- Marco Rubio, the GOP's Senate candidate, typifies the increasingly conservative bent of the Legislature. Rubio slammed the special session as "another Washington-style political gimmick meant to distract from the real issues confronting the Gulf Coast." With Democrats trailing in the polls, the Senate race between Crist and Rubio has only tightened since the governor dropped his party affiliation. Cretul, R-Ocala, is among those in the Legislature who have endorsed Rubio. Countless candidates Meanwhile, many House and Senate lawmakers are either running for re-election or higher office. Some, like Tampa Republican Rep. Kevin Ambler who is running for state Senate, are in tight primary races and vying for the favor of conservative voters and donors. Adams, the House member who called for censure, is among several state legislators running for Congress. The Oviedo Republican is one of three frontrunners in a crowded primary race for the GOP nomination to challenge U.S. Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, a Democrat. Republican Alex Villalobos of Miami, known for his independent streak and willingness to buck party leadership, is expected to file Crist's resolution in the Senate. But in the House, only Democrats have agreed to sponsor it. Lack of a GOP sponsor only further dims its chances of passing there. Oil politics However they choose to act this week, lawmakers may be unable to avoid handing Crist a political victory, said John "Mac" Stipanovich, veteran Republican strategist and lobbyist. "Obviously, the audience is that portion of the electorate that is viscerally anti-drilling," said Stipanovich, who has remained a Crist supporter. "That is a portion of the electorate that will shrink or swell with the circumstances, and it's probably at its optimum right now." Crist would most clearly win if his proposal reaches the ballot, Stipanovich said. But he would still benefit politically from pushing his agenda and then raging against the Legislature for refusing to let voters have their say. Crist ally Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, would not speculate on the outcome of the session. But "it's going to be difficult for anyone to vote against it who represents a coastal county," he said. A handful of Republicans may actually be eager to vote for Crist's proposed amendment, said Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West. He noted that a few Republicans, like Rep. Marti Coley of Marianna, are facing tough attacks from political challengers over their votes in 2009 to lift the statutory drilling ban. "They probably wish they could take that vote back" -- or at least try to counteract it, Saunders said. Coley did not respond to a request for comment. The scenario bears some resemblances to Crist's own predicament. The governor embraced drilling in federal waters off Florida's coast in 2008, when he supported Sen. John McCain's presidential bid and was considered a potential vice-presidential nominee. Crist also expressed conditional support for repealing the state's statutory drilling ban prior to the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe that began April 20. His about-face mirrors that of the electorate. In June, a Quinnipiac University poll revealed that 51 percent of Floridians opposed any increase in offshore drilling, compared with 66 percent supporting it on April 19. Multiplying sessions Increasingly, Republican lawmakers who have panned Crist's proposed ban have sought to shift the focus to helping Florida communities suffering from the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon spill. Gaetz said he hasn't decided how he will vote this week on the ban, because he has been concentrating on proposals for economic relief and help with BP claims for businesses and residents of Northwest Florida. Last week, Atwater and Cretul agreed that lawmakers need to commit their attention and resources to providing such assistance -- but not this week. Instead, they agreed they needed more time and would call another session as early as September. Kriseman said that makes sense up to a point, given the complexity of the oil spill's impacts. But he also suspects that GOP leaders are determined to prevent any constructive outcome this week. Chris Ingram, a Republican strategist in Tampa, said he opposes Crist's proposed ban. But he's not convinced, he said, that voters will be as receptive if lawmakers focus instead on the pragmatic concerns of oil-impacted communities. Such legislation could provide needed assistance to some areas, he said, but it does not respond to the statewide angst over the spill. "You don't have to be an environmentalist to say this is heartwrenching," he said. House Majority Leader Adam Hasner said he refuses to "look at this through a political spectrum ... There are people hurting in the Panhandle." Hasner, R-Delray Beach, argued that Crist's proposal won't create one job, stop the oil from washing ashore or bring back tourists. "But there are meaningful things we can do," he said. "There's no reason to go up there and rush; rushing through this could lead to making mistakes. What's more important is that we get it right."

Reporter Catherine Whittenburg can be reached at (850) 222-8382.

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