Some might have thought the slick talk in Florida would have ended when lawmakers wrapped up the 2010 session, but official Tallahassee could not talk enough about oil this week.
Specifically, they were talking about the ramifications of a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused by a late April explosion of an oil rig owned by BP. There was talk of lawsuits and a special session to ban drilling, but very little was said about continuing to move forward with a plan to allow drilling as close as three miles off the Florida Gulf coastline that was once very much a looming reality.
With the legislative business of 2010 done – for now – lawmakers rushed to the nearest beach (and television camera) to say they won’t allow any rigs within the same hemisphere of Florida’s precious coastline. But anyone who has not had sand in their ears for the past year knows that supporters of the drilling proposal spent the better part of the last year trying to hit pay dirt, holding endless meeting about the plan.
The proposal all but ran out of gas this week, as even prominent drilling backers Senate President-designate Mike Haridolopos, R-Merritt Island, and House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said it was “off the table.”
It was a stunning turning around from the closing weeks of session, when Cannon said it might not happen this year, but implied it would be back when he took the gavel next year.
However, that was before the damaged Deepwater Horizon well one mile below the surface started pumping 210,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf every day. Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole said cleanup efforts could last all summer.
Gov. Charlie Crist called the accident a sign that the Gulf proposal should be drilled for good.
"It hasn't happened in Florida, but it happened in Louisiana and we may suffer as a result of it," Crist said during one of several appearances in Pensacola. "But I think the timeliness of when this occurred is pretty extraordinary when you think about it because there may have been legislation in this last week that would have permitted it, but for this occurring."
Crist was in Pensacola so often this week he may as well have pitched a tent, and state Democrats held press conferences on beaches as often as they did at the Capitol. The “We Told You So” Dems called for a special session to add a constitutional amendment to the ballot, and they were joined by Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink,.
Republicans in the Legislature, many of whom had just gone on the record in favor of drilling this session, accused Democrats of playing politics. The GOP accurately pointed out that current law bans drilling in Florida waters and there is clearly no chance any one is coming back to change it, so moving this summer to change the constitution probably isn’t necessary for prevention. Lawmakers could easily wait until next session if they want to do that – with absolutely no appetite for starting any new drilling between now and then.
But the Republicans may have picked a slightly flawed messenger to deliver that message in House Deputy Majority Leader Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland. Demonstrating an elephant’s memory, Democrats took less than an hour to produce a YouTube video of McKeel saying on the House floor that drilling was safe.
But the call for a special session to ban drilling appeared to find a sympathetic ear in newly-independent Gov. Charlie Crist, who told reporters in Palm Beach that he’d consider it, but left a decision for another week.
The more-populist-than-ever Crist may have been reading the polls, which showed this week that while a majority of Americans still support drilling after the accident, a majority in Florida do not. A telephone survey of 500 likely voters conducted May 3 by Rasmussen Reports showed support for drilling in Florida down to 48 percent, while nationally support was a much higher 68 percent.
Perhaps that is what led Crist to empathically declare “Not now, no way," on the drilling proposal, which was clearly the consensus in Florida this week.
Eyes this week were also on Gov. Crist’s veto pen, which looms larger now that he has left the Republican Party than it has at any time in his three years in office.
Opponents of a controversial measure pushed through the Legislature last minute that would require most women to hear a description of an ultrasound before having an abortion turned to Crist this week, taking a page from teachers and lobbying him for a big red veto. Crist’s office said it received 2,291 E-mails and 317 phone calls urging him to veto the bill, and 262 E-mails and 32 phone calls asking him to sign the measure.
And as he did in the days before he overturned a bill that would have ended teacher tenure, Crist hinted this week that he may be listening.
Crist said he had some concerns about the measure, but noted he still had to review it in entirety. "I don't want it to be something that's too intrusive on the privacy of women," he told reporters.
If he decides it is too intrusive, that would undo a deregulation bill that had been sought all session by the Agency for Health Care Administration. The abortion language was in an amendment to an ACHA bill (HB 1143) that makes changes to licensing standards for care facilities, eliminates a requirement that license renewals be delivered by certified mail, and enhances electronic publication of reports. The bill also reduces duplicative inspections and provides some flexibility for nursing homes to provide respite services.
But ACHA may have to go back to the drawing board next year with one stroke of Crist’s veto pen.
Transportation advocates turned to Crist this week too, urging him to undo a sweep of the state Transportation Trust Fund that could be as high as $160 million. Florida Transportation Builders Association president Bob Burleson said Crist seemed receptive to vetoing the language this week, but that could be complicated by language in the budget that ties money taken from trust funds directly to education.
That means a veto could erase support Crist won from the teachers after vetoing the merit bill they staunchly opposed. The state’s largest teacher’s union has been running “Thank You Charlie” ads since the veto, but they might have different message for the governor if he alters the per-student funding in the budget.
One-time supporters of a bill intended to protect children from certain types of restraint and seclusion practices in schools also called on Crist to issue a veto this week, but their problem was their legislation did not go far enough. The National Autism Association sent Crist a letter this week asking him not sign HB 1073, saying it doesn't do enough to protect children from abuse in schools.
LEGISLATING MEANS SOMETIMES HAVING TO SAY YOU’RE SORRY
Unlike the movie “Love Story,” where love meant never having to say you’re sorry, sometimes you have to pologize in lawmaking. At least that what Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, thought this week when he took a trip to the Public Service Commission to lobby for a biomass plant local officials in Gainesville badly want.
Oelrich, a member of the Public Service Commission Nominating Council, appeared before the PSC Monday in its first hearing since the Florida Senate voted against confirming Commissioners David Klement and Benjamin "Steve" Stevens. Before he urged them to vote for the plant, Oelrich said sorry to Klement and Stevens.
“Some of the criticism I heard about you all is that you're not in the industry and…I thought that was a plus, as opposed to a minus,” he said. “I did vote for confirm both of you, but my side was not on the winning side."
Klement and Stevens took the comments in stride, thanking Oelrich for his support.
"I can indicate no bias in advance regarding any decision to be made on this case," Klement said. "I just want to thank you for your fairness and willingness to consider an issue on its facts and its merits, rather than its politics. It's unfortunate that more of your colleagues could not do that."
Opponents of the biomass plant urged the PSC to vote on the plan before Klement and Stevens leave office, but the panel stuck to its schedule, taking testimony this week and planning a vote June 2.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Oil. Lots of it. In the Gulf of Mexico. It was all oil, all the time this week in the immediate aftermath of a session where expanding drilling was a hot topic. Most of the discussion this week, however, was about spiking the plan.