Offshore drilling may come to vote alongside casino deal

Sep 2, 2009

Joe Follick

Ocala Star Banner

TALLAHASSEE - Once political taboo, drilling for oil and gas within 10 miles of Florida's beaches could be considered by lawmakers this October in a special session that may see a vote on another longtime controversy - expanded gambling in the state.

Gov. Charlie Crist said Tuesday that a proposed special session in October for lawmakers to consider a deal allowing blackjack and slot machines in seven casinos run by the Seminole Indians could also include a separate vote on oil drilling.

"That's certainly possible," said Crist.

Lawmakers made a sudden, last-minute effort in April to consider allowing the governor and the three Cabinet members to approve leasing land within 10 miles of Florida's coast to businesses for oil and gas drilling.

"It would have to be something that would have to be introduced by the Legislature," said Crist. "It dovetails off of some of the discussion that we heard at the end of the session last year which I thought at the time was a little hasty."

Lawmakers and lobbyists have spent the summer preparing for an anticipated battle on the issue when the Legislature returns for its annual meeting in March, a timetable that may suddenly be moved up to next month.

Among the leading supporters is Winter Park Republican Rep. Dean Cannon who is slated to be the House Speaker in late 2010.

Cannon said consideration in October would be wise since the state will be losing federal stimulus money after next year that has largely kept the state's basic services funded.

Cannon called it the "looming flameout of the stimulus dollars" and a potential billion dollar shortfall.

"If the state could find true new dollars, we've got to get that conversation started," he said. "It's literally money flowing out of the ground and into our economy."

But opponents have said the reward is too small to risk any oil spills or polluting refinery or processing operations that would tarnish the state's tourism image of pristine beaches. Supporters have vowed that the actual drilling near the Gulf of Mexico would be contained underwater and not visible from beaches.

"We shouldn't be seeking short-term gain at the risk of long-term damage," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, a candidate for attorney general. "And we definitely shouldn't be making those decisions in a rush" during a short special session that would likely last only a week or two.

Cannon said the debate should not be about drilling, but about the actual bill which simply allows the governor and the three statewide elected members of the Cabinet - the chief financial officer, attorney general and agricultural commissioner - to consider proposals to lease state lands for drilling.

"How can any rational person be against letting them have the conversation," said Cannon. "It would be irresponsible not to allow them to consider proposals."

Crist has made the use of renewable, "green" energy sources one of the hallmarks of his time as governor. But Crist joined then-presidential candidate John McCain in the "drill baby drill" push in 2008, reversing his opposition to oil drilling.

The legislative debate has no impact on the ongoing battle in Congress to expand drilling in federal waters more than 10 miles off of Florida's coast.

With House Republicans, who control the chamber by a nearly two-to-one margin, almost certain to approve an oil drilling plan, the fate may lie in the Senate which declined to consider the bill earlier this year.

The real target of the push may be a dormant natural gas drilling site near the Panhandle. Few argue that the oil lying in state waters would be available for at least a decade or that it would provide enough fuel to change gas prices.

But the enticement for the state is great, with supporters offering staggering promises of up to $41 billion for the state's economy and hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

"If it's going to take a long time, let's start now," said Barney Bishop, the president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida, one of the state's largest business groups.

The debate over oil drilling may be the only topic that could obscure the passion over a proposed gambling deal that lawmakers will likely consider in October.

Crist and the Seminole Indians have worked for more than two years to secure a deal that would allow the tribe to have slot machines and blackjack at their casinos in exchange for $150 million annually for the state.

But House lawmakers have been skeptical, saying the proposal may allow for expanded gambling at other sites around the state.

Crist warned again Tuesday that without a deal, the federal government could allow the Seminoles to maintain the expanded gambling anyway "and we won't get a dime."

Special sessions are traditionally limited to a few topics that lawmakers have largely agreed upon in secret. But they are also opportunities for controversial issues to be rammed through without the horse-trading and white noise that accompanies a regular session when hundreds of bills are being debated.

Lawmakers could make another run at passing legislation that removes the ability of the state's Office of Insurance Regulation to set rates for large property insurers. Crist vetoed the bill earlier this year. One of the backers - Bradenton Republican Sen. Mike Bennett - said Tuesday that the issue could pop up again in October.

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