Gov. Charlie Crist has called a special session of the Florida Legislature for later this month to discuss a proposed constitutional ban on oil drilling off the state's coastline.
The move comes as several Panhandle counties continue to struggle with the invasion of oil that has tainted their beaches and affected tourism. The cost to those counties alone has been in the millions of dollars, and the toll on the statewide economy has been far higher.
"I feel a compelling duty to protect Florida,'' Crist said at an afternoon news conference. "I think the rightness of this is so clear, especially dealing with what we have dealt with in the past 80 days or so.''
Much of the Gulf Coast - from Texas to Florida - has been affected by the ongoing gusher in the Gulf of Mexico from the BP rig that exploded in a fiery ball and then sank in April off the Louisiana coast.
The session will be from July 20-23, Crist said. The sole item on the agenda will be the proposed constitutional ban of drilling off the state's coastline. If it is going to go on the ballot for this fall, the governor said, it has to be done by Aug. 4.
"I don't think I would be doing my duty as governor if I didn't call this session,'' Crist said.
Keith Overton, chairman of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, welcomed the news.
"We have encouraged him to do that all along,'' said Overton, who also is the senior vice president and chief operating officer of the TradeWinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach. "There is always somebody going after it in the Legislature. This may be the only opportunity to shut the window or close the door on it.''
For more than a century, Overton said, Florida's beaches have shared a national and international reputation as a beach getaway destination. That image has been tarnished in the past weeks, and oil rigs located offshore Florida would only add to the damage, he added.
Overton has seen his Pinellas resort take a $1.7 million hit since the gusher in the Gulf began. His property represents 800 of Pinellas County's 35,000 hotel rooms; apply those losses to the rest of the Pinellas rooms and you have a $70 million impact in one county alone, he said.
"Start doing the math in the Panhandle and elsewhere, and you are into the billions of dollars,'' he said. "If ever it was going to pass, now would be the time for that to occur.''
The reaction from elected officials to the news of the special session was swift.
"I commend the governor for agreeing to call for a special session to ban near beach oil drilling, despite the resistance from special interests and some members of the Legislature," said Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer and a Democratic candidate for governor.
"In addition to banning near beach drilling, the special session should also tackle the urgent needs for our business owners and state, including much-needed small business relief, a more streamlined claims process, and the creation of an environmental endowment for additional research," Sink added.
Crist has said he has the support of Panhandle legislators, where some beaches have been oiled by the massive environmental disaster. But legislative leaders in areas so far unaffected have been uncooperative.
The amendment would require 60 percent approval from voters in November.
Offshore drilling is now banned by Florida statute but could be changed by legislative action. A constitutional ban would require voter approval before it could be reversed.