July 20, 2010 / 7:27 PM / 7 years ago

Florida lawmakers block move on oil drilling ban

* Florida law already bans drilling in state waters

* Constitutional ban would be harder to overturn

* Amendment would have needed approval by 60 pct of voters

By Michael Peltier

TALLAHASSEE, Fla., July 20 (Reuters) - Florida’s Republican-led legislature on Tuesday rejected a call by Governor Charlie Crist to consider a constitutional amendment to strengthen the ban on oil drilling off the state’s coast.

The Florida House of Representatives voted 67-44 to adjourn a special session without taking up Crist’s proposal to let voters put a permanent ban on offshore drilling in the state’s constitution.

The vote, coming against the backdrop of BP’s (BP.L) (BP.N) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, was largely along party lines with most Republicans supporting adjournment and Democrats in favor of continuing the debate.

The vote was widely seen as part of a bid by Republicans to weaken Crist and deny him a victory he could use after leaving the Republican Party to run for the U.S. Senate as an independent.

Drilling in state waters is already prohibited by statute but putting the ban in Florida’s constitution would make it much more difficult to overturn.

The Florida Senate, which had planned to meet through Friday, adjourned hours after the House vote, saying there was no point in conducting a debate when there was no chance a bill would pass.

Recent polls show Crist, who has a slight edge in the Senate race over Republican rival and Tea Party darling Marco Rubio, may be more in line with the public than with his former allies in the state legislature.

SHIFT IN OPINION POLL

A poll released Monday by Progress Florida showed 71 percent of Florida voters wanted the chance to vote on the oil drilling ban, and 50 percent opposed drilling within 10 miles of Florida’s coast.

The poll, conducted last week by Washington-based ISSI, marked a dramatic shift from other surveys conducted before BP’s oil disaster, when there was strong support for more oil exploration off Florida.

If an amendment on offshore drilling had been approved by three-fifths of the state’s House of Representatives and Senate by Aug. 4, it would have gone before voters in the Nov. 2 general election.

Florida’s $6 billion-a-year tourism industry depends on pristine beaches and fishing, boating and diving in unspoiled waters.

Opponents of a constitutional ban on oil drilling off Florida say a current statutory moratorium on drilling is sufficient. Crist has argued that the moratorium could easily be lifted by future legislatures.

Lawmakers from both parties said they planned to reconvene as early as September for a special session to take up a number of bills addressing economic remedies to offset damage, especially affecting businesses and residents in Florida’s northwest Panhandle region, from BP’s oil spill.

At that time, some lawmakers said they could readdress a constitutional ban on drilling as well. (Reporting by Michael Peltier; Editing by Bill Trott)

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