Oil Spill: Legislative Opinion Divided on Governor Charlie Crist’s Plans for a Special Session
During the May 11, 2010, meeting of the governor and cabinet, Gov. Crist announced that he would call the Legislature into a special session, probably during the week of May 24, in response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The governor said he wanted the Legislature to address a constitutional amendment to ban offshore drilling and to enact legislation in support of alternative energy sources.
Both of the leading candidates for governor, Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum and Democrat Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, indicated support for a constitutional amendment, while the other Cabinet member, term-limited Republican Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, said, “I think we ought to know all the facts before we overreact.”
The proposed constitutional amendment would ban oil drilling in coastal waters within 10.6 miles of the shoreline. In addition, the governor would seek legislative approval for incentives to support renewable energy projects such as a $1-a-month surcharge on electric bills that would finance construction of solar power plants. The governor’s efforts in behalf of renewables in previous legislative sessions have not been successful.
Efforts by drilling advocates to lift the state’s current ban on offshore drilling also were unsuccessful in the 2010 regular session of the Legislature.
Gov. Crist said, “I want to talk about wind, nuclear, solar, natural gas, and other alternative means to provide energy to our people. Whether it be wind, solar, natural gas, nuclear — what have you — to wean ourselves off this dirty stuff is just the right thing to do.”
Many legislators expressed opposition either to the concept of a constitutional ban on drilling or to the timing of the proposed special session. House Speaker Larry Cretul (R-Ocala) said, “Our state resources and leadership should be focused on solving the real problem at hand, not fighting political campaigns at taxpayers’ expense. Drilling in Florida waters is currently banned and will remain so. There is no need for taxpayers to pay for a special session just to provide a platform for politicians to score political points.”
Senate President Jeff Atwater (R-North Palm Beach), who generally supports renewable energy and opposes drilling, also objected to the proposed session, saying, “Before we enter a special session, which could cost taxpayers upwards of $40,000 daily, we must find common ground with our partners in the governor’s office and the Florida House.”
A Palm Beach Post survey of 18 House members who represent Gulf Coast districts found that 14 of the representatives opposed a special session, even though they might ultimately support a constitutional ban on drilling. Rep. Ron Saunders (D-Key West), who is expected to become House Minority Leader in the 2010 – 2012 biennium, said, “I don’t see the urgency.” Rep. Leonard Bembry (D-Madison), a drilling opponent, said, “We haven’t even stopped the oil yet. We don’t have all the facts yet.”
Other Democrats supported the idea. Rep. Keith Fitzgerald (D-Sarasota) said, “This is our opportunity. This is a good time for the people to make the decision, while the costs and the dangers are in the forefront of people’s minds.”
Oil Spill: Legal and Business Task Forces to Assist in Response to Oil Spill; Tourism Off in Panhandle
On May 11, 2010, Gov. Crist issued an executive order establishing the Gulf Oil Spill Economic Recovery Task Force to coordinate the state’s efforts to help affected businesses and industries recover from the impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Governmental agencies represented on the task force will include the Office of Trade, Tourism, and Economic Development, the Department of Children and Families, the Division of Emergency Management, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Agency for Workforce Innovation, the Office of Policy and Budget, and the Department of Revenue. The task force also will include representatives of Visit Florida, the Small Business Administration, the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Association of Counties, a local chamber of commerce, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, the National Association of Charterboat Operators, and the seafood industry.
Gov. Crist and Attorney General McCollum also announced that they were assembling an outside legal team to assist in the state’s efforts to determine the financial impact of the oil spill and recover money from responsible parties. The team will be led by two former attorneys general, Republican Jim Smith and Democrat Bob Butterworth.
Gov. Crist said, “I couldn’t think of better people to serve in this role, to pick a great legal team to represent Florida, to fight for Florida and look out for our interests, and to make sure Florida is protected, first and foremost.”
The tourism industry in the Panhandle, which does most of its business between Memorial Day and Labor Day, is already sustaining impacts from the oil spill. According to Carol Dover, President of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, occupancy rates have declined by 30 percent in the stretch of coast from Panama City to Pensacola. Ms. Dover predicted that occupancy rates for the Memorial Day weekend, which usually exceed 90 percent, could drop below 20 percent at many Panhandle hotels.
On May 12, 2010, in response to a request from Visit Florida, Gov. Crist wrote BP America, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon well, seeking an immediate $24.75 million for a national and international media campaign. “We need to advertise, get the message out that our beaches are clean, our water is clean, the fish are biting, please come to the Panhandle, it’s beautiful,” the governor said. He also requested an additional $10 million for marketing by coastal counties throughout the summer months.
Legislation: Gov. Crist Vetoes Two Agriculture Bills Supported by Legislative Leadership and Threatens to Veto Budget Projects
On May 15, 2010, Gov. Crist vetoed two agriculture bills that were major priorities for legislative leaders, including Senate Ways and Means Chair JD Alexander (R-Lake Wales). The vetoes follow two other vetoes of bills that were important to the Legislature’s Republican leaders — a campaign finance reform bill and a bill that provided merit pay and abolished tenure for public school teachers.
One of the bills, HB 981, would have preserved the agricultural tax assessment for farmland used for agricultural purposes that was on the market. The bill would have applied retroactively in some cases. The other bill, HB 7103, prohibited counties from regulating agricultural activities that are already regulated by the state.
Both bills were supported by Agriculture Commissioner Bronson. A spokesperson for Mr. Bronson said that the commissioner was disappointed about the vetoes and that Gov. Crist may have been confused about what the bills did.
The Legislature delivered the general appropriations act and associated legislation to the governor on May 13, 2010. He will have until May 28, 2010 to act on the measures. When asked by reporters about special projects for particular legislators’ districts, many of which were added late in the legislative session, Gov. Crist said, “I probably will veto all of those, because, you know, it just strikes me as fiscally imprudent not to do so.” Many of the projects the governor is expected to target are in Miami-Dade County, where House Appropriations Chair David Rivera (R-Miami) is running for Congress. Vetoes are also possible for projects in the district of Sen. Alexander.
Sen. Mike Fasano (R-New Port Richey), one of the governor’s closest allies in the Legislature, urged Gov. Crist to veto approximately $300 million in university and college construction projects and the “sweep” of $160 million from the transportation trust fund. Noting that many projects were added late in the budget negotiation process, Sen. Fasano said, “All of a sudden, Alexander and Rivera find not a few, but hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s wrong.”
Politics: Tampa Selected to Host 2012 Republican National Convention
On May 12, 2010, Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele announced that the 2010 Republican National Convention would be held at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, with convention events occurring throughout the Tampa Bay area. The convention is scheduled for the week of August 27, 2012.
The convention will be funded with $40 million raised privately by a host committee, an $18-million grant from the Federal Election Commission, and a federal appropriation of $50 million for security. The host committee is not seeking any local government contributions to support the convention.
Economy: Florida Home Sales Rise While the Foreclosure Rate Declines
On May 11, 2010, Florida Realtors reported that existing home sales in Florida during the first quarter of 2010 were 24 percent higher than during the same period in 2009. The first quarter of 2010 saw sales of 38,836 existing homes, as compared with 31,140 in the first quarter of 2009.
Sales prices declined by five percent. The median sales price in the first quarter of 2010 was $133,800. In the first three months of 2009, the median price was $140,900.
On May 13, RealtyTrac, a company that monitors foreclosure activity, reported that Florida’s foreclosure rate in April 2010 was 18 percent lower than the foreclosure rate in March 2010 and 25 percent lower than the rate in April 2009.
Florida’s foreclosure rate remains the third-highest in the nation, after Nevada and Arizona. Some type of foreclosure filing affected one out of every 182 properties in Florida. Nevada’s rate was one in 69. Fort Myers was the only Florida metropolitan area in the top 10 nationally, with foreclosure activity affecting one in every 105 properties.
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