By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, July 28, 2009………. Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda said Tuesday that her vote in favor of a controversial bill that could have allowed offshore oil drilling as close as three miles from Florida’s Gulf Coast was part of a deal that would have resulted in more renewable energy in the state.
Speaking during a roundtable discussion about clean tech businesses hosted by the Florida Renewable Energy Producers Association, Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, said she voted for the bill last session because House Speaker Designate Dean Cannon and sponsor Charles Van Zant said they would have allowed her to attach amendments to it that would have result in $160 million in investment in renewable energy. If it had been approved, the governor and Cabinet would have been allowed to consider approving Gulf drilling fields.
The deal fell apart when the Senate showed little appetite for the late-emerging drilling plan, but Vasilinda said the vote was “courageous” and stood by it on Tuesday despite taking heat from former Leon County Democratic Party Chairman Rick Minor, who resigned his post to challenge her for the House District 9 seat partially because of the vote.
“I cut a deal,” she said. “The deal was …. if I vote for that, then I could get my renewables on. The bill looked like it was going, and it looked like it was going to be accepted in the Senate at that time and by the governor. The only opportunity for anybody to put renewables on this bill at the time was me, so I did that. We got $160 million for true renewables – no nuclear – on the bill and that was the only energy bill that was coming out of the House.”
An April Mason-Dixon Polling and Research survey showed why the drilling vote could prose problems for Vasilinda in the primary against Minor. Fifty-nine percent of the poll’s 625 respondents said they supported drilling off Florida’s coast, but among Democrats, the margin was just 46 percent to 35 percent.
Vasilinda told the group of renewable energy producers that the drilling vote was not easy, but she also said that she “proud” of it because getting investment in renewables was one of her chief campaign promises.
“I was really quite nervous about doing this; I was getting pressure from all kinds of folks.” she said during a wrap-up of the 2009 legislative session at the FREPA roundtable. “My eyes were bugging out of my head. But I went up to take my amendments off and…basically started to get sick to my stomach because I felt like I was lacking courage. I felt like if I removed the amendments that I would not be being true by what I went there for and what I represented myself for.”
Vasilinda added that she recognized the vote could be problematic for her politically in one of the few left-leaning outposts in the Panhandle, saying that “people are couching me as being pro-drilling,” but she quickly added that she was not.
Chief among those doing the couching is Minor, Vasilinda’s new opponent for the 2010 Democratic nomination. Launching his candidacy last month, Minor cited the drilling vote as a major reason Vasilinda deserved to be replaced after just one session in office.
“The fact that someone could support off-shore drilling as little as three miles off Florida’s beaches, I think is a travesty,” Minor said during a June 30 news conference, painting Vasilinda as unprincipled. “The voters in District 9 want a strong Democrat that knows where he or she stands on the core Democratic issues. We have had some really great representatives in that district…and people are used to and expect strong leadership in that seat and right now they aren’t getting that.”
Minor stuck to that position Tuesday, telling the News Service of Florida Tuesday that Vasilinda’s explanation of her drilling vote was not good enough to excuse it.
“The way I look at it is despite what the oil companies will tell you, there’s no way to have oil drilling as little as 3 miles off our shores be safe,” he said in a telephone interview. “Other members have said that one spill would decimate the industries along our coast. When you consider that — when you consider the $56 billion in tourism that we get every year because of our beaches, that’s too much to risk. Our beaches and tourism industry define who we are as Floridians.”
Natural Resources Defense Council consultant Susan Glickman, who lobbied for the renewable energy standard on behalf of the Climate Group, agreed with Minor that Vasilinda’s deal was a bad one for Florida.
“There was unanimous opposition from the conservation community,” Glickman told the News Service. “There was no way to strike a palatable deal to tie the renewable portfolio standard to the drilling bill. Investing in drilling is like buying an 8-track cassette when the whole world is buying iPods. There’s no trade-off. To drill is to move 180 degrees in the opposite direction.”