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Proposed drilling ban splits local legislators

TALLAHASSEE - The showdown is set for high noon Tuesday. Inside the Legislature, the battle lines have been drawn over the proposed constitutional ban over near-shore drilling off Florida's coastline. When the controversial special session begins , anti-drilling protesters are expected to be outside the Capitol, worried that the measure won't even get a vote in the House. On either side of the issue are legislators with very different views about the emotional debate.
"The House needs to get its act together,'' said Sen. Mike Fasano, a Republican from New Port Richey who has stuck by his long-time friend, Gov. Charlie Crist, even after the governor defected from the GOP. "They need to stop throwing bombs at the governor and start thinking of their constituents.'' Republican House leadership has made no secret of its displeasure in coming to Tallahassee for the special session, and has ripped Crist repeatedly. "Big Oil has an enormous amount of influence with what is happening in Tallahassee,'' said Fasano, who thinks the measure will pass the Senate. "Big Oil is successfully lobbying the House leadership. People should be outraged by that.'' It remains to be seen just how long the special session will last. The governor called it for the period of Tuesday through Friday, but House leadership has told its members they don't expect it to last that long. State Rep. Ed Hooper, a Republican from Clearwater, said he doesn't think the proposed amendment will even come up for a vote on the House floor. "It's against the law already, it doesn't pick up tar balls on the beaches. Why aren't we helping those people hanging by their last straw and they are about to let go,'' Hooper said. "To do it in a rush to me smells of a political agenda.'' Hooper was one of three Republicans who last year voted against opening state waters to drilling, and he said he still has that same mindset today. He said he doesn't think anyone would propose drilling in waters close to shore after the enormous BP disaster. "Anyone foolish enough to should start planning their own retirement party because they will be out of office at the next election,'' Hooper said. "It's not a good plan. It does not make sense.'' State Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, who is one of the legislators carrying the proposed ban in the House, said he expects the House Democrats to caucus today to discuss rumors that the House Republicans aren't going to let the measure to come to a vote. "There's very little we can do to stop them, but I believe it would be a mistake," said the Sarasota Democrat. "People deserve to at least have a choice. They don't see this as something just symbolic. They want some control over their future." State Rep. Rick Kriseman, a Democrat from St. Petersburg and the co-sponsor of the House measure, called his chamber's leadership hypocrites. "If this was the Olympics of hypocrisy, give them a gold medal,'' said Kriseman. While the scene around the capital was quiet today, it is expected to be anything but that Tuesday morning. That is when busloads of anti-drilling proponents are supposed to show up for a "Hands Around the Capital'' demonstration. One such group is coming from the Tampa Bay area. "We're just trying to show that the people of Florida are watching and that we care,'' said Cathy Harrelson, a St. Petersburg environmental activist. "People are coming from all over our state." Last month, more than 7,000 people turned in Pinellas County out for a "Hands Across the Sand'' protest opposing drilling, Harrelson said. That figure was part of about 40,000 statewide on that date. "It's disconcerting that the people we vote for seem to be afraid to let the citizens have a say on this,'' Harrelson said. "It's clear that it's not a good idea for Florida. The Legislature needs to let the people of Florida decide.''

Reporter Rob Shaw can be reached at (813) 259-7999. Reporter Lindsay Peterson can be reached at (813) 259-7834.

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