THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA: Leaders Limit Session Agenda, But Say More Work Needed

Jul 15, 2010

The following article was published by The News Service of Florida on July 15, 2010:


THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, July 15, 2010…Legislative leaders moved to end speculation Thursday about adding property-tax breaks, immigration reform or a host of other issues to the special session called next week by Gov. Charlie Crist to craft a ballot measure banning oil-drilling in Florida waters.

House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, said he agreed with Senate President Jeff Atwater’s proposal to return to the Capitol by early September to address other measures stemming from the Gulf oil spill and Florida’s economic fallout.

But Cretul also may have signaled dim prospects for Crist’s push for a drilling ban. In a memo to House members, Cretul ambiguously said that he agreed with Atwater that “we are not ready to legislate with respect to the oil spill.”

“You can expect your stay to be very short next week,” Cretul assured fellow House members.

Still, neither Cretul nor Atwater provided any insight into how they plan to deal with Crist’s proposal for a November ballot measure. House Republicans have almost unanimously derided Crist’s push to ban drilling, with one Central Florida lawmaker Thursday saying the governor should be censured for wasting taxpayer money by calling lawmakers into session.

Instead, Atwater and Cretul agreed that legislators should plan on returning to the Capitol in another month. As a prelude, Atwater also recommended adding several House members to an existing Senate committee and charging it with developing “a legislative package that truly meets the needs of this emergency.”

“Floridians will not be well served by hastily drafted legislation designed more for political consumption than meaningful economic relief,” Atwater said in his letter to Cretul.

The leaders said a second special session may be the time to consider other action, which other lawmakers have said may include steps to improve the state’s recovery of millions of dollars in claims from BP and provide property-tax reimbursements for Gulf coast residents and businesses.

Cretul said a September session would be called once “we can identify those subjects upon which we can act.”

The exchange between the two leaders ends what in recent days has proved a free-for-all of measures that could be tacked onto next week’s agenda, including extending state unemployment eligibility standards and enacting an Arizona-style immigration law.

Crist has called lawmakers into a four-day special session beginning Tuesday to put on the November ballot a proposed constitutional amendment banning oil-drilling within Florida waters, over opposition from most ruling Republicans who say the measure is unnecessary, since state law already bars such exploration.

On Thursday, a House joint resolution was unveiled sponsored by a pair of Gulf Coast Democrats, Reps. Keith Fitzgerald of Sarasota and Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg. But Crist has gained little support from Republicans, with even Atwater’s “political consumption” reference a possibly veiled shot at the state’s chief executive.

The House’s view of the session may have been underscored by Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Oviedo, who said Thursday she is sponsoring a resolution to censure Crist. She accused the governor of wasting hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars by calling what she said is an unneeded session.

For his part, Crist has said the House’s push for oil-exploration the past two years affirms the need to have voters consider a drilling ban.

While Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, is expected to introduce an oil-drilling amendment similar to that proposed by the two House Democrats, Atwater in his letter doesn’t appear to share his view about Crist’s proposed ballot measure. Atwater refused the House the past two springs when it pushed to bring oil-drilling as close as three miles from Florida’s coastline, but when Crist called the session last week, the Senate president responded only by saying he hoped other economic issues could be added to the agenda.

By Thursday, however, Atwater seemed to abandon that hope.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, also managed to take a veiled shot at Crist. Gaetz, whose Select Committee on Florida’s Economy is being positioned by Atwater to put together the legislation for the post-Aug. 24 primary special session, said the governor’s hurry-up call for a session has blunted the possibility of fully developing other spill-related bills.

“It is unfortunate that the timing and call of next week’s special session did not take into account the economic aspects of the oil spill,” Gaetz said in a letter released by Atwater’s office. “Sadly, the clock has tolled on that opportunity.”

Among other steps, Gaetz had been looking to enact legislation providing property-tax reductions to Gulf coast residents and businesses. Property appraisers in the Panhandle’s Santa Rosa and Escambia counties earlier this summer wrote Crist warning that properties would lose value this year because of the spill – but taxpayers would still face bills based on assessments in place at the start of 2010.

The Legislature has approved various tax relief measures five times since 1985, following hurricanes, wildfires and tornadoes in Florida. The most recent, $1,500 property-tax reimbursements were handed out in 2007 to Central Florida residents whose houses were destroyed or heavily damaged by tornadoes.

Providing tax relief this time around, though, is proving more troublesome.

With businesses the length of the Gulf coast complaining about the slow tourist season, any attempt give property-tax breaks is likely to draw complaints from lawmakers whose districts are left out.

The Florida Constitution also sets Jan. 1 as the effective date for the value of homestead properties. Although tax bills aren’t due until fall, the constitutional requirement is a barrier lawmakers would have to navigate in trying to reset values for residents, Gaetz told the News Service of Florida.

“Everybody knows it should be done, can be done,” Gaetz said of the tax give-back. “But how we do it is still elusive.”

Before the exchange of letters from legislative leaders, the state’s largest labor union, the Florida AFL-CIO, on Thursday added to the call for more action next week. AFL-CIO President Mike Williams said lawmakers should extend unemployment benefits and modernize state compensation laws to cover more jobless Floridians.

Unemployment benefits have run out for about 200,000 Floridians since federal emergency benefits expired at the beginning of June, officials said.

The state’s $60 billion tourism industry has been staggered by at least a 20 percent decline in recent months, Visit Florida officials acknowledge. Along the Panhandle, the usually lucrative summer season has evolved into a grim summer of waiting for oil, sharply reducing what for many beach-reliant businesses is the bulk of their annual revenue. That’s despite the fact that little oil has actually washed ashore in the state.

University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith predicted earlier this summer that even a 10 percent decline in Florida tourism along the Gulf coast would drain $2.2 billion from the state’s economy and cost 39,000 jobs. If tourism was cut in half, Snaith warned, the economic cost could top $10 billion and erase almost 200,000 jobs.

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