By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 9, 2011……The former governor who promised to give the Florida Legislature hell for not approving a proposed constitutional drilling ban last summer was back in Tallahassee Wednesday to announce how he is going to do it: leading an effort to put it on the 2012 ballot without lawmakers’ approval.
In his first public appearance back at the Capitol since leaving office last month, Charlie Crist downplayed the idea that he was seeking retribution by working to place the drilling ban on the ballot with the help of the people. But it was just six months ago called the House and Senate a “Do Nothing Legislature” for not taking up the proposed ban.
Now he is teaming up with the Democrat who sought unsuccessfully to replace him, former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, to co-chair the Save Our Florida Beaches campaign that was launched in October by the Florida Wildlife Federation, Progress Florida and the Sea Turtle Conservancy.
“It’s nothing about payback, the idea is try to do what’s right for the state that I love so much,” Crist told reporters after a press conference announcing the petition drive. “That’s what it’s always about. We’re just giving them a chance to do what’s right.”
Sink, the defeated gubernatorial candidate who came within about 67,000 votes of defeating Rick Scott in the race to replace Crist, said there was little hope the new, more conservative Legislature that emerged following the election would put the amendment on the ballot.
“We’re in Tallahassee, it’s the land of special interests,” Sink said. “It’s time for the people of Florida to stand up and say we don’t have to worry about the Legislature, we’ll go straight to the amendment process.”
Opponents say memorializing a ban in the constitution – which would be hard to undo – takes away flexibility from policy makers, a bad idea in a down economy.
“Limiting future possibilities by permanently cutting off access to any oil and natural gas resources in Florida waters is short-sighted at best,” said Nicolás Gutiérrez, Jr., chairman of the FLA Energy Forum. “At a time when our state is facing a minimum $3.6 billion budget shortfall and a 12 percent unemployment rate, we should be looking for opportunities to boost our economy, put our citizens back to work and ensure we have the ability to meet the energy demands of the next few decades.”
Gutiérrez said getting new access to currently off limits oil and gas could bring in $1.7 trillion and create a half million jobs by 2025.
Some lawmakers are also seeking to get the idea before voters through the other traditional path to the ballot, the Legislature, with a proposed constitutional amendment (HJR 383) filed to get the issue up for a 2012 vote.
But even that measure’s sponsor, Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, said that collecting signatures from voters was the most likely way the drilling ban would end up on the ballot.
“I’m confident the signatures will be obtained, and the amendment would be on the 2012 ballot,” Kriseman said, speaking of the petition drive before his own legislation. “However, it’s my hope that Republican leadership in the Legislature does the right thing by getting out in front of this issue by passing legislation that I have filed.”
Last summer, lawmakers made a show of adjourning a special session called by Crist without taking up the drilling ban within an hour of it beginning. Then, Republican critics of the drilling ban argued that it was unnecessary because there’s already a moratorium in place, and there is little political appetite to change that now in the wake of Gulf of Mexico oil spill last summer.
Scott has said he could support offshore drilling if proper safeguards can be guaranteed.
State law calls for proponents of amendments that are not approved by supermajorities of the Legislature to gather nearly 700,000 signatures by Feb. 1 of the election year, giving backers about a year to get it on the 2012 ballot. If they don’t get them, they could continue to work toward 2014.
Crist said he was confident the signatures could be collected by next year.
“I think the support will be there,” he said. “Enough Floridians care deeply about this state, and love her like I do and want to protect her. I’m sure once the word gets out about individual citizens – you know, the highest office in the land – to have the opportunity to love Florida and help protect her, I don’t think there will be any problem getting the signatures.”